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U.S. secretly tracked billions of calls for decades

Bush, nine years before his son, President George W. Bush, authorized the NSA to gather its own logs of Americans' phone calls in It was approved by top Justice Department officials in four presidential administrations and detailed in occasional briefings to members of Congress but otherwise had little independent oversight, according to officials involved with running it.

Agents gathered the records without court approval, searched them more often in a day than the spy agency does in a year and automatically linked the numbers the agency gathered to large electronic collections of investigative reports, domestic call records accumulated by its agents and intelligence data from overseas. The result was "a treasure trove of very important information on trafficking," former DEA administrator Thomas Constantine said in an interview.

The extent of that surveillance alarmed privacy advocates, who questioned its legality. Holder halted the data collection in September amid the fallout from Snowden's revelations about other surveillance programs. In its place, current and former officials said the drug agency sends telecom companies daily subpoenas for international calling records involving only phone numbers that agents suspect are linked to the drug trade or other crimes — sometimes a thousand or more numbers a day.

The DEA began assembling a data-gathering program in the s as the government searched for new ways to battle Colombian drug cartels. Neither informants nor undercover agents had been enough to crack the cartels' infrastructure. So the agency's intelligence arm turned its attention to the groups' communication networks. Calling records — often called "toll records" — offered one way to do that.

Toll records are comparable to what appears on a phone bill — the numbers a person dialed, the date and time of the call, its duration and how it was paid for.

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By then, DEA agents had decades of experience gathering toll records of people they suspected were linked to drug trafficking, albeit one person at a time. In the late s and early s, officials said the agency had little way to make sense of the data their agents accumulated and almost no ability to use them to ferret out new cartel connections. Some agents used legal pads. The DEA asked the Pentagon for help. The military responded with a pair of supercomputers and intelligence analysts who had experience tracking the communication patterns of Soviet military units.

The military installed the supercomputers on the fifth floor of the DEA's headquarters, across from a shopping mall in Arlington, Va. The system they built ultimately allowed the drug agency to stitch together huge collections of data to map trafficking and money laundering networks both overseas and within the USA. It allowed agents to link the call records its agents gathered domestically with calling data the DEA and intelligence agencies had acquired outside the USA. In some cases, officials said the DEA paid employees of foreign telecom firms for copies of call logs and subscriber lists.

The result "produced major international investigations that allowed us to take some big people," Constantine said, though he said he could not identify particular cases. In , President George H. Bush proposed in his first prime-time address using "sophisticated intelligence-gathering and Defense Department technology" to disrupt drug trafficking. Three years later, when violent crime rates were at record highs, the drug agency intensified its intelligence push, launching a "kingpin strategy" to attack drug cartels by going after their finances, leadership and communication. In , in the last months of Bush's administration, Attorney General William Barr and his chief criminal prosecutor, Robert Mueller, gave the DEA permission to collect a much larger set of phone data to feed into that intelligence operation.

Instead of simply asking phone companies for records about calls made by people suspected of drug crimes, the Justice Department began ordering telephone companies to turn over lists of all phone calls from the USA to countries where the government determined drug traffickers operated, current and former officials said. Barr and Mueller declined to comment, as did Barr's deputy, George Terwilliger III, though Terwilliger said, "It has been apparent for a long time in both the law enforcement and intelligence worlds that there is a tremendous value and need to collect certain metadata to support legitimate investigations.

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The data collection was known within the agency as USTO a play on the fact that it tracked calls from the U. The DEA obtained those records using administrative subpoenas that allow the agency to collect records "relevant or material to" federal drug investigations.

Officials acknowledged it was an expansive interpretation of that authority but one that was not likely to be challenged because unlike search warrants, DEA subpoenas do not require a judge's approval. Officials said a few telephone companies were reluctant to provide so much information, but none challenged the subpoenas in court.

Those that hesitated received letters from the Justice Department urging them to comply. After Sprint executives expressed reservations in , for example, Warren, the head of the department's drug section, responded with a letter telling the company that "the initiative has been determined to be legally appropriate" and that turning over the call data was "appropriate and required by law. The letter did not name other telecom firms providing records to the DEA but did tell executives that "the arrangement with Sprint being sought by the DEA is by no means unique to Sprint" and that "major service providers have been eager to support and assist law enforcement within appropriate bounds.

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