The Snowden effect continued to roll today, with fresh revelations detailing how the pervasive surveillance of the National Security Agency (NSA) is in fact linked to domestic criminal prosecution. The idea, and the defense, that NSA activity only impacts non-United States citizens and terrorists, is now utterly specious.
The NSA is one of the member agencies of a DEA unit called the Special Operations Division (SOD). The SOD, according to Reuters who broke the story, is at work “funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help” start, and win criminal investigations of United States citizens.
Therefore, there is a direct connection between the NSA and its surveillance efforts and regular criminal prosecution in the country.
The Washington Post read the Reuters piece as an indication the NSA is leaking phone record information to the DEA, through the SOD, but we’re not convinced that it’s a proper reading of the source. However, the SOD does operate the ‘DICE’ database, which the DEA told Reuters has around 1 billion records, both telephonic and digital. The majority, but not all, are sourced by the DEA itself.
What’s most surprising about today’s revelations is the process by which the DEA covers the tracks of its information. Using “parallel construction,” where information came from is hidden. Reuters tells a story in which a judge was told that a tip kicked off the investigation at hand. However, after pressing, it was admitted that the data had in fact been first captured by the NSA, and distributed by the SOD.
By creating new pasts for received data, the DEA can avoid potentially awkward questions about the legality of its evidence.
And the data that the NSA collects could be very useful to the DEA. The NSA, for example, collects metadata on every phone call placed in the United States. It is not clear what the NSA shares, or how often. However, it’s the fact that NSA data is being handed to the DEA through the secret SOD that is troubling prima facie.
This is not the last time that we will have a conversation similar to this one. According to the New York Times, other agencies inside the Federal government are clamoring for the information that the NSA has collected, and continues to collect.
It has also recently been reported that members of Congress are being denied access to information about the NSA’s activities, both by having requests ignored, or simply denied. Glenn Greenwald has primary source information, letters sent by members of Congress asking for specific information.
Others have reported similar issues in more pedestrian fashion, including Rep. Justin Amash, who tweeted that access to certain information was provided for a mere three hours, and that many Representatives missed the chance, and that those who did see the document in question were not allowed to discuss it with those that did not.
There is work afoot, as you might have expected, to keep information regarding the NSA’s activities out of the public eye. To some extent that is perfectly reasonable, given that such agencies are clandestine by nature. When Congress, tasked with oversight of American intelligence operations, is lied to, denied information, and then provided only select facts for limited periods of time, something is wrong.
And, given that the NSA is slipping the DEA information about domestic phone calls, we’ve never needed more stern hands on the NSA’s wheel.
Top Image Credit: Brett Neilson