Well, here’s a corker: Federal officials from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are actually the source of our current domestic mass metadata collection madness, not the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA got the idea from them. It turns out the DEA had been engaged in mass metadata collection of all phone calls originating from the United States to many foreign countries all the way back in the 1990s, a decade before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Of course, the reason back then was to fight the unwinnable drug wars. The DEA needed to know about your call to your aunt who lives in Italy in order to track down international drug cartels, obviously.
The details come courtesy of USA Today‘s Brad Heath, who interviewed a host of anonymous government sources:
For more than two decades, the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls from the USA to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking, current and former officials involved with the operation said. The targeted countries changed over time but included Canada, Mexico and most of Central and South America.
Federal investigators used the call records to track drug cartels’ distribution networks in the USA, allowing agents to detect previously unknown trafficking rings and money handlers. They also used the records to help rule out foreign ties to the bombing in 1995 of a federal building in Oklahoma City and to identify U.S. suspects in a wide range of other investigations.
The Justice Department revealed in January that the DEA had collected data about calls to “designated foreign countries.” But the history and vast scale of that operation have not been disclosed until now.