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Civil liberties coalition wants Congress to probe DEA spy program

Civil liberties coalition wants Congress to probe DEA spy program
Concerns over the United States government’s vast surveillance apparatus aren’t subsiding, even three months after former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden first started leaking national security documents.

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law and more than 20 other groups signed letters to Congress asking for an investigation into a recently revealed spy program that lets federal officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration access non-terrorism intelligence collected by other agencies.

Earlier this month, Reuters unveiled news of a long-standing federal program, the Hemisphere Project, that puts intelligence collected by the National Security Agency into the hands of DEA agents. In turn, Hemisphere allows narcotics officers to benefit from information that was accumulated with the intent of thwarting terrorist plots, not drug deals, since 2007.

Documents obtained by the New York Times suggest that 4 billion call detail records are populated within the Hemisphere database each day, all in great secrecy until this month.

"[T]he scale and longevity of the data storage appears to be unmatched by other government programs, including the NSA's gathering of phone call logs under the Patriot Act,” the Times claimed.

Now the ACLU, NORML and roughly two-dozen other groups are asking US lawmakers to look into the program.

According to Reuters, the groups sent a letter to congressional leaders on the judiciary, homeland security and oversight committees this week, condemning the latest revelations “serious and far-reaching.”

"For too long Congress has given the DEA a free pass," Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance told Reuters. "Our hope is that Congress does its job and provides oversight of an agency that has a long track record of deeply troubling behavior."

The revelation earlier this month regarding a NSA/DEA alliance came amidst a series of other scoops in recent weeks exposing how the US intelligence community has conducted itself in the years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Leaked NSA documents attributed to Snowden have shown that information about the phone calls and Internet habits of millions of Americans has been collected by the government, and a steady stream of disclosures have continuously been covered in the media since the UK’s Guardian and the Washington Post began profiling the leaker’s cache of classified documents on June 5.

Only days after the first Snowden leak revealed that the NSA was collected telephony metadata pertaining to millions of Verizon Business Services customers on a daily basis, the ACLU filed a suit alleging they were denied their “reasonable expectation of privacy, free speech and association, right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures and due process rights.”

In July, NORML signed on to a separate lawsuit filed by an array of plaintiffs located in the state of California, including the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, the Council on Islamic Relations and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In that claim, the plaintiffs said they were challenging “an illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet electronic surveillance” waged by the US government, specifically “the bulk acquisition, collection, storage, retention and searching of telephone communications information” that was already being argued by the ACLU.

Now with the latest letters to be sent to Capitol Hill, the ACLU and NORML are working side-by-side to ideally bring a stop to just another intelligence program they say is illegal.

Why has the DEA kept this surreptitious surveillance program in the shadows?” Ezekiel Edwards of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project asked this week in a blog post on the organization’s website. “Because, as with so many of government surveillance programs, Hemisphere raises serious constitutional questions.”

Simply put, under the tired guise of protecting Americans from drugs, the US government has secretly targeted and invaded the life and privacy of millions of its own citizens,” Edwards wrote. “The US should be ending the War on Drugs, not expanding it by secretly outsourcing widespread surveillance.”

According to Reuters, representatives with the DEA have defended the Hemisphere Project and say it is not in violation of any law. A classified hearing is expected in the House of Representatives later this month.