Everything in the War on Terror Came from the War on Drugs

bmaz has long insisted, correctly, that all the tricks they have used in the war on terror came first from the war on drugs.

The USA Today’s Brad Heath demonstrates how true that is with a blockbuster story on a DEA dragnet, called the USTO, of US to international calls covering up to 116 countries that operated similarly to the NSA dragnet. It dates back to the last days of Poppy Bush’s administration. And key figures — especially Robert Mueller, but also Eric Holder — played roles in it in their earlier Executive Branch careers. And, no surprise, the DEA never gave discovery on the collection to defendants.

Definitely read the whole thing. But I’m particularly interested in the last paragraphs, which explain what happened to it. After Snowden exposed the NSA version of the dragnet (which includes the US, as well as foreign countries) and the government kept arguing that was justified because of its special intelligence purpose, the claims they made to justify the DEA dragnet started to fall apart. Plus, it has become less useful anyway, now that more people use the Intertoobz.

It was made abundantly clear that they couldn’t defend both programs,” a former Justice Department official said. Others said Holder’s message was more direct. “He said he didn’t think we should have that information,” a former DEA official said.

By then, agents said USTO was suffering from diminishing returns. More criminals — especially the sophisticated cartel operatives the agency targeted — were communicating on Internet messaging systems that are harder for law enforcement to track.

Still, the shutdown took a toll, officials said. “It has had a major impact on investigations,” one former DEA official said.

The DEA asked the Justice Department to restart the surveillance program in December 2013. It withdrew that request when agents came up with a new solution. Every day, the agency assembles a list of the telephone numbers its agents suspect may be tied to drug trafficking. Each day, it sends electronic subpoenas — sometimes listing more than a thousand numbers — to telephone companies seeking logs of international telephone calls linked to those numbers, two official familiar with the program said.

The data collection that results is more targeted but slower and more expensive. Agents said it takes a day or more to pull together communication profiles that used to take minutes.

This lesson is instructive for the NSA dragnet. It points to one reason why the NSA dragnet may not get all the “calls” it wants: because of messaging that bypasses the telecom backbone. And it shows that an alternative approach can be used.

 

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

15 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    How about sending an electronic subpoena, every day, to each Telco, asking for all calls (reason being, they are all “relevant” to something or other) ? I bet FISC would sign off on those. Is that good enough as an “alternative approach”?

  2. scribe says:

    And you were wondering why Poppy Bush’s Attorney General went directly to work as General Counsel of AT&T on leaving government service….

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The so-called war on drugs, of course, was a domestic culture, race and economic war as much as it was an effort to criminalize illegal drug use. That it effectively did and does target Americans of color is without credible dispute: the gulf between penalties for use of cocaine vs. crack cocaine is a case in point. As such, it was also part of Nixon’s Southern strategy, one goal of which was to get more Southern whites to vote Republican and to suppress African American voters, who were expected to vote for Democrats. At a time when many elections were rigged and incumbents were routinely reappointed to office, allowing voters to the polls at all, much less those voting for the wrong guy, was a management problem more than an electoral problem.

    It was also a war against nonconformity, resurgent in the 1960s and pre-Watergate 1970s after having been tramped down by the early Hoover’s tactics during the post-WWI Red Scare and by 1950s McCarthyism. It was a war not just against Nixon’s hated hippies, but against widespread nonconformity among the working and middle classes, who saw their brothers, husbands, and sons end up in Vietnam while the Cheneys and Bushes of America had “better things to do”. In effect, it was a war against democracy, against political movements outside the constipated limits of the two-party system, limits that are now even more constricted.

    The parallels with today’s supposed war on terror, such as widespread racial profiling are many. As Alfred McCoy and bmaz have pointed out, such “wars” inevitably bring home the tactics and strategies used to fight enemies abroad, many self-made. Omnipresent surveillance, from telecoms to license plate readers, and secret Chicago interrogation and holding cells are examples. But it’s all to protect the Heimat, don’t you know, not to keep democracy and the economy working with the limits tolerated by our elders.

    • bmaz says:

      Well, DEA has been “up” on foreign comms for a very long time. Both surreptitiously, and through co-options of foreign telcos such as Telemex and a host of similar others. This is not new, and it is not the NSA. DEA. This is a 25-30 year deal, at a minimum. DEA has also been up domestically.

      Everybody clacks about the CIA and NSA. As pernicious as they are, the DEA has long been more ruthless and competent.

        • bmaz says:

          With due respect, Kevin’s take is naive. Never, with the DEA, confuse moving of peas under shells for “ending”. And that is if you believe the DEA operates under the rules you think it does. Hint: It does not.

          • bobswern says:

            The entire concept that the AT&T Hemisphere Project (every news story and blog post that I’ve read about this over the past 24 hours doesn’t even refer to it as that; then again, it’s against the legal directives of our nation’s intelligence and law enforcement organizations to not even mention this program’s name in public) has, somehow, been terminated flies in the face of the general trend of the current administration to just shuffle the deck chairs on our Titanic surveillance state, putting most questionable programs under the supposedly-direct management of the FBI. So, now “…it’s all perfectly legal(TM)” Meanwhile, everyone’s still accessing these same databases, which are available all the way down to your local police department, via the 78 Fusion Centers that blanket our country.

            For anyone to posit that these platforms have been shut down runs counter to virtually EVERYTHING that we know has been done by the administration to expand the surveillance state, moreso than ever, in the past couple of years, while continuing to lie, obfuscate and otherwise deceive those of us in the unwashed masses to the contrary.

            What a typically twisted not-so-little story this is in Tuesday’s USA Today!

            • emptywheel says:

              Hemisphere may not be the same as the USAT described dragnet. The former actually lives at the drug czar and does seem currently limited to AT&T data (which may parallel the 215 dragnet). It is domestic calls.

              The latter is international, and appears to have no limits.

              There’s a similar structure w/NSA: the 215 dragnet of US calls and the EO 12333 dragnet of everything else (which increasingly can probably get US “calls”).

              That said, your larger point still stands.

              Also note that during the period when DEA was supposingly getting all this data via subpoenas to the telecoms by the 1000, their total number of subpoenas were going down significantly.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        I agree with your points, though don’t see what they respond to in my comment.

  4. seedeevee says:

    Let’s not forget to give an assist to the “war on child porn” and how it opened the door to the “need” to look at all of your electronic gadgets at the border . . . .

  5. orionATL says:

    so all of us non-druggas must tolerate the invasion of our privacy so that a bunch of cops – drug cops – have a chance at catching a small number of druggas.

    dare we be rude enough to ask –

    just how many drug businessmen/businesses have been busted for good? how much lower is the volume of drugs now available to american citizens than was available in 1992? what exactly has the dea accomplished in terms of first-rate police work?

    and of course we must make note of the eagle’s nest, of ruthless, corrupt, criminal prosecution, and of repeated authorization of unconstitutional federal police activity – our u.s. department of justice.

  6. Bobster33 says:

    I think it is important to understand why the DEA started this. During the early 1990’s, witnesses were regularly being killed in third world countries. We had TV shows like Miami Vice that glorified and glamorized the drug trade. Lacking any real solution, the DEA decided to break the Constitution.

    I remember reading in the book, “Killing Pablo” that Pablo Escobar had no trouble derailing investigations against him. He killed witnesses, bought politicians, planted drugs on influential people (that could harm his profits), etc.

    If we had legalized drugs, all of this would be moot. My biggest issue is that the DEA did not accomplish anything (in terms of drug consumption reduction). All we got were bigger police budgets, more violence (cops and drug dealers both), and these lousy fucking DARE t-shirts.

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