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Federal Court Grants Discovery Of DEA Mass Surveillance Program

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A judge in a federal court in Los Angeles has granted motions of discovery filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a lawsuit on behalf of Human Rights Watch to examine the the constitutionality of the DEA’s bulk surveillance program.

The lawsuit, filed in April, asked the judge to declare the surveillance operation government officials say has now been halted, illegal, and to permanently block its reinstatement ensuring that all illegally collected records are accounted for and destroyed.

“It’s time to end the program, and bulk surveillance, once and for all,” an attorney with the Electronic Frontier FoundationNate Cardozo said.

The Justice Department admited in January that the DEA had been secretly gathering logs of Americans’ international phone calls and had been capturing virtually all calls from the United States to over 100 countries including Mexico, Canada and most of the countries in South and Central America.

The EFF said Tuesday that the DEA surveillance program “relied only on an obscure administrative subpoena statute to obtain the records in bulk. That means, unlike the NSA’s bulk surveillance program, there was no judicial involvement whatsoever.”

Human Rights Watch alleges in the suit that its records had been “collected, retained, searched, and disseminated without any suspicion of wrongdoing and without any judicial authorization or oversight.”

The group said that such sweeping surveillance violated its First and Fourth Amendment rights, and that it should be able to make international calls without having the government keep a record of them.

“Who we communicate with and when we communicate with them is often extraordinarily sensitive — and it’s information that we would never turn over to the government lightly,” Human Rights Watch General Counsel Dinah PoKempner said.

The EFF said that the court order marks the first case it is aware of “permitting discovery into a government mass surveillance program and forces the government to answer questions, under oath, about the steps it took to ensure that all illegally collected records have been fully purged from all government systems.”

According to the EFF:

The government, instead, asked the judge to dismiss the case. DEA had previously said that it had “suspended” collecting records in bulk in September 2013. Now, it submitted an additional four-paragraph declaration from a DEA agent that said the DEA’s illegally collected records had been “quarantined” and “purged.” That, the government argued, required the court to dismiss the case. The government was trying to sweep two decades worth of unconstitutional activity under the rug with a single, four-paragraph declaration.

We pushed back. We’ve seen enough government double-speak concerning surveillance programs to know that there was more to the story. We argued that the government’s four-paragraph, summary declaration wasn’t enough to establish that all of the billions of records it collected, over a twenty-year span, had been accounted for and purged. Instead, we asked the court to allow HRW to take discovery—basically, a process by which one party to a lawsuit can compel the other side to provide information—from the government about the surveillance program.

Although the court narrowed the scope of the discovery HRW can take, the decision is still a victory. It will provide some much needed insight into the government’s surveillance program and whether or not the government continues to retain and use those illegally collected records. And we’ll keep fighting for more information about the program and to ensure that the program is stopped, once and for all.

The DEA surveillance program, known within the agency as USTO, was the government’s first known effort to collect electronic data about Americans in bulk, without regard to whether they were suspected of crimes.

Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush has said that the DEA “is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers” – but even if that is true – which is highly unlikely, the DEA is still engaged in many controversial surveillance activities.

Recently released government documents show that over the last several years, the DEA has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of millions of vehicles around the country.

The now-not-so-secret domestic intelligence-gathering program scans license plates and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists in order to “seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking.”

Since its inception however, the database’s use has expanded to hunt for vehicles associated with many other potential crimes and officials have publicly said that they track vehicles near the border of Mexico to help ‘fight drug cartels.’

Many state and local law-enforcement agencies, who work closely with the federal government via regional threat fusion centers, access the database routinely for a variety of reasons.

With this information at their fingertips, local officials can track vehicles in real time on the roads.

The program collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways. Many devices also record visual images of drivers and passengers, which are sometimes clear enough for investigators to confirm identities, DEA documents say.

The documents show that the DEA also uses license-plate readers operated by state, local and federal law-enforcement agencies to feed into its own network and create a far-reaching, constantly updating database of traffic on the roads.

By 2011, the DEA had about 100 cameras feeding into the database, the documents show.