How Edward Snowden Unwittingly Killed a Mass-Surveillance Program

By exposing the NSA’s spying regime, Snowden forced the Justice Department to shut down a separate phone-surveillance operation.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
Add to Briefcase
Dustin Volz
April 8, 2015, 5:15 a.m.

It has been a pretty good week for Ed­ward Snowden.

The po­lar­iz­ing leak­er of gov­ern­ment secrets rock­eted back in­to pub­lic aware­ness, thanks to an in­ter­view with vir­al-hit-maker and comedi­an-with-a-con­science John Oliv­er. Then Snowden en­thu­si­asts in­stalled a bust of him in a Brook­lyn park—which was later re­placed with a holo­gram of his like­ness. And act­or Joseph Gor­don-Levitt is traipsing around Wash­ing­ton, D.C., film­ing scenes as Snowden for the Oliv­er Stone movie about the fu­git­ive slated for re­lease later this year.

But likely noth­ing will bring the former Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency con­tract­or as much sat­is­fac­tion as find­ing out this week that his 2013 dis­clos­ures ap­pear to have promp­ted the Justice De­part­ment to pull the plug on a secret mass-sur­veil­lance pro­gram—one he isn’t even re­spons­ible for ex­pos­ing.

USA Today re­por­ted on Tues­day that a Justice De­part­ment pro­gram had, from 1992 to 2013, col­lec­ted re­cords of Amer­ic­ans’ in­ter­na­tion­al phone calls. De­scribed as a “blue­print” for the NSA’s con­tro­ver­sial drag­net, the pro­gram, housed with­in the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion, “amassed logs of vir­tu­ally all tele­phone calls from the USA to as many as 116 coun­tries linked to drug traf­fick­ing,” ac­cord­ing to the pa­per. Those coun­tries in­cluded U.S. neigh­bors Canada and Mex­ico, as well as parts of Europe and nearly all of cent­ral and South Amer­ica.

(RE­LATED: Watch John Oliv­er In­ter­view Ed­ward Snowden About the NSA Spy­ing on Your Nude Pho­tos)

The DEA sur­veil­lance net was re­mark­ably sim­il­ar to the NSA pro­gram. It col­lec­ted in bulk the phone metadata—that is, the num­bers, time-stamps, and dur­a­tion of a call but not its con­tent—of all U.S. calls placed to tar­geted for­eign coun­tries. Un­like the NSA, the DEA drag­net did not in­clude wholly do­mest­ic calls, but it did ap­pear to lack a num­ber of in­tern­al safe­guards or ju­di­cial over­sight.

The block­buster story ex­poses sev­er­al new de­tails about the size, his­tory, and ra­tionale of the DEA op­er­a­tion, which the Justice De­part­ment ac­know­ledged in gen­er­al terms ex­is­ted in court doc­u­ments sub­mit­ted in Janu­ary. But per­haps most sur­pris­ing is that the pres­sure ap­plied to NSA phone-spy­ing—which is still on­go­ing—from the Snowden dis­clos­ures un­know­ingly brought about the down­fall of the DEA pro­gram.

“It was made abund­antly clear that they couldn’t de­fend both pro­grams,” a former Justice De­part­ment of­fi­cial told USA Today.

It is gen­er­ally un­der­stood that mass sur­veil­lance of Amer­ic­ans’ com­mu­nic­a­tions re­cords was a sys­tem ad­op­ted in the name of na­tion­al se­cur­ity in the months and years fol­low­ing the Septem­ber 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks. Though at one time ex­clus­ively linked to the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ag­gress­ive se­cur­ity policies, the Snowden dis­clos­ures re­vealed that in­dis­crim­in­ate snoop­ing is bi­par­tis­an, as Pres­id­ent Obama has main­tained, and in some cases ex­pan­ded, sur­veil­lance pro­grams.

(RE­LATED: Court: NSA Spy­ing May Con­tin­ue Even If Con­gress Lets Au­thor­ity Ex­pire)

But the DEA pro­gram presen­ted the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion with a prob­lem: In the face of with­er­ing cri­ti­cism promp­ted by the Snowden leaks, how could it de­fend the NSA’s spy­ing as ne­ces­sary to pro­tect na­tion­al se­cur­ity when the DEA was run­ning a sim­il­ar pro­gram to track drug deals?

At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er de­cided it couldn’t, and he ordered the pro­gram ter­min­ated in Septem­ber 2013—just three months after Snowden’s wa­ter­fall of leaks began.

“The Justice De­part­ment was go­ing in­to court and say­ing, in part, ‘What we’re do­ing in this in­tel­li­gence-sur­veil­lance pro­gram is OK, be­cause it serves na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests and it’s not done for routine law en­force­ment,’” journ­al­ist Brad Heath, who broke the story, ex­plained in a video in­ter­view pos­ted on USA Today‘s site. “And then they sort of had the prob­lem of, ‘Well, we’re do­ing something like this for routine law en­force­ment.’ And at the end of the day they had to make a choice between the two pro­grams.”

So Hold­er chose to kill the DEA pro­gram. And he re­fused when DEA of­fi­cials asked to re­vive it three months later.

Snowden sym­path­izers have been frus­trated at the lack of mean­ing­ful spy re­forms ad­op­ted in the two years since his rev­el­a­tions began. Even Snowden him­self has said he wor­ries about so-called “NSA fa­tigue,” as he told Wired magazine last sum­mer.

(RE­LATED: Snowden: France’s “In­trus­ive” Sur­veil­lance Laws Faild to Stop Par­is At­tacks)

But the USA Today art­icle of­fers the most con­crete demon­stra­tion yet of the im­pact his leaks have had on chan­ging the gov­ern­ment’s sur­veil­lance pro­tocol. The DEA’s bulk phone-col­lec­tion has been re­placed by a far nar­row­er pro­gram that “sends tele­com com­pan­ies daily sub­poen­as for in­ter­na­tion­al call­ing re­cords in­volving only phone num­bers that agents sus­pect are linked to the drug trade or oth­er crimes—some­times a thou­sand or more num­bers a day.”

Moreover, cer­tain ele­ments of the DEA pro­gram would have likely of­fen­ded Snowden even more than the NSA that he found so galling. Its re­li­ance on ad­min­is­trat­ive sub­poen­as, which do not need court ap­prov­al, marked a lower over­sight threshold than the NSA pro­gram that re­quires ap­prov­al from the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court when an ana­lyst wants to con­duct a data search.

It was also used far more fre­quently. While the NSA claims its ana­lysts only searched its data­base 300 times in 2012, “DEA ana­lysts routinely per­formed that many searches in a day, former of­fi­cials said,” ac­cord­ing to USA Today.

Sur­veil­lance crit­ics were crushed last Novem­ber when a bill to re­form the NSA nar­rowly died in the lame-duck Sen­ate, as it failed to over­come GOP op­pos­i­tion. The de­feat stung more be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans have taken con­trol of the Sen­ate and have shown little in­terest in re­form meas­ures.

But Snowden has already helped end a sweep­ing mass-sur­veil­lance pro­gram. He just didn’t know it.

What We're Following See More »
SAYS HIS DEATH STEMMED FROM A FISTFIGHT
Saudis Admit Khashoggi Killed in Embassy
2 days ago
THE LATEST

"Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, had died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Eighteen men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them. State media also reported that Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials had been dismissed."

Source:
ROGER STONE IN THE CROSSHAIRS?
Mueller Looking into Ties Between WikiLeaks, Conservative Groups
2 days ago
THE LATEST

"Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Mueller’s team has recently questioned witnesses about the activities of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, including his contacts with WikiLeaks, and has obtained telephone records, according to the people familiar with the matter."

Source:
PROBING COLLUSION AND OBSTRUCTION
Mueller To Release Key Findings After Midterms
2 days ago
THE LATEST

"Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections ... Specifically, Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice." Mueller has faced pressure to wrap up the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said an official, who would receive the results of the investigation and have "some discretion in deciding what is relayed to Congress and what is publicly released," if he remains at his post.

Source:
PASSED ON SO-CALLED "SAR" REPORTS
FinCen Official Charged with Leaking Info on Manafort, Gates
2 days ago
THE DETAILS
"A senior official working for the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has been charged with leaking confidential financial reports on former Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Richard Gates and others to a media outlet. Prosecutors say that Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a senior adviser to FinCEN, photographed what are called suspicious activity reports, or SARs, and other sensitive government files and sent them to an unnamed reporter, in violation of U.S. law."
Source:
FIRST CHARGE FOR MIDTERMS
DOJ Charges Russian For Meddling In 2018 Midterms
2 days ago
THE LATEST

"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login