US tracked phone calls for two decades in anti-drug program

Posed photo of a person answering a phone call

WASHINGTON - The US government started keeping secret records of international phone calls made by Americans in 1992 in a programme intended to combat drug trafficking, USA Today reported on Tuesday, citing current and former intelligence and law enforcement officials.

The programme, run by the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration, was halted by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013 amid the fallout from revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about NSA data collection, the paper reported.

The DEA programme was the government's first known effort to gather data on Americans in bulk, sweeping up records of telephone calls made by millions of US citizens regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime, USA Today said.

The programme amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls made from the United States to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking.

Federal investigators used the call records to track drug cartels' distribution networks in the United States, allowing agents to detect previously unknown trafficking rings and money handlers, the paper said.

The programme did not intercept the content of calls but it did record the phone numbers and when they were dialed.

When the data collection began, agents sought to limit its use mainly to drug investigations and turned away requests for access from the FBI and the NSA, the paper reported.

Agents allowed searches of the data in terrorism cases, including the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people in 1995, helping to rule out theories linking the attack to foreign terrorists, the paper reported. They allowed even broader use after Sept. 11, 2001, it said.

Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush told USA Today the DEA "is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from US service providers." Instead, the DEA assembles a list of the telephone numbers it suspects may be tied to drug trafficking and sends electronic subpoenas to telephone companies seeking logs of international telephone calls linked to those numbers, the paper said.