Federal and local drug officials reportedly have subpoena access to an AT&T database of phone calls whose size dwarfs any collection of data done by the National Security Agency.
The New York Times reports Monday that a counternarcotics program known as The Hemisphere Project involves the government paying AT&T to place its employees in drug-fighting units made up of both Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and local detectives. The AT&T employees then supply law enforcement officials with all the phone data going back to 1987.
By contrast, the NSA stores data for nearly all calls in the United States, including the phone numbers involved, the time the call was made, and the duration of the call, for a period of five years.
The program, which was started in 2007, covers every call that passes through an AT&T switch, not just calls made by AT&T customers, according to training slides seen by The Times that bear the logo of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The slides were given to the paper by a Washington activist named Drew Hendricks, who said that he had received the slides, which were marked "Law enforcement sensitive," after making a series of public information inquiries to West Coast police agencies.
The Obama administration has acknowledged that AT&T employees have been embedded in government drug units in at least three states, but says that the phone data is stored solely by AT&T, not by the government, and raises no privacy concerns. The data is retrieved through the use of so-called "administrative subpoenas" issued by the DEA, as opposed to a grand jury or judge.
A Justice Department spokesman told The Times "subpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations," and the Hemisphere program "simply streamlines the process of serving the subpoena to the phone company so law enforcement can quickly keep up with drug dealers when they switch phone numbers to try to avoid detection."
However, Jameel Jaffer, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the Hemisphere Project raised "profound privacy concerns," adding "I’d speculate that one reason for the secrecy of the program is that it would be very hard to justify it to the public or the courts."