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Documents: Drug agents plumb vast AT&T database of call records to track down traffickers

Newly released documents show that for at least six years, drug agents have had near-immediate access to billions of phone call records dating back decades in a collaboration with AT&T that officials have taken pains to keep secret.

The program, first reported Monday by The New York Times, is called the Hemisphere Project. It's paid for by the federal government, and it allows investigators armed with subpoenas to mine the company's vast database to help track down drug traffickers who frequently switch cellphones to avoid detection.

That's a different approach from that of the National Security Agency, which has come under fire for maintaining its own collections of call records.

The Associated Press independently obtained a series of slides detailing the Hemisphere program. They show the database includes not just records of AT&T customers, but of any call that passes through an AT&T switch. Investigators who request searches of the database are instructed to "never refer to Hemisphere in any official document."

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Sullivan reported from Washington, D.C.