How Edward Snowden Unwittingly Killed a Mass-Surveillance Program

In 2013, an ex-contractor with NSA revealed operational details of the National Security Agency from a hoard of top secret documents which he obtained while working for one of US largest contractor for defense and intelligence, Booz Allen Hamilton. Media reports on the disclosure shed light on efforts to implement global surveillance.

The disclosures were first published in June 2013 and although President Obama on August 6, 2013 assured Americans on a national television that “we do not have a domestic spying program”, the leaks have since generated public concern. Perhaps to his delight, Snowden learnt only recently that the revelation seemed to have unwittingly prompted the demise of a related surveillance – the DEA surveillance, which was not even the subject of his leaks.

A report on USA Today, April 8, disclosed that the Justice Department had run a program within the Drug Enforcement Administration from as far back as 1992 to 2013, which collected records of practically all telephone calls, made from the US to some 116 countries. These countries, which have been linked to drug trafficking, included Mexico, Canada, some parts of Europe, and almost the entire Central and South America. The DEA surveillance collected phone numbers, time-stamps and duration of calls made to the selected countries.

These concurrent surveillance programs presented a challenge to the Obama administration: justifying the running the NSA surveillance in the name of national security, especially in the heat of emerging criticisms prompted by the Snowden revelations, when a similar program was being conducted by the DEA to tackle drug trafficking.

The Justice Department was torn between defending the DEA intelligence-surveillance program as being necessary for national security, and proving its expediency for routine law enforcement. Consequently, Attorney General Eric Holder in September 2013 ordered the DEA program shut down and refused to revive it despite calls from DEA officials to do so three months later. Apparently, Snowden killed a mass-surveillance program.

The DEA dragnet appeared to have had some undesirable sides to it. Firstly, the program effectively lacked judicial oversight, since it relied on administrative subpoenas; and subpoenas do not require any approval from the courts. In contrast, the NSA surveillance demands an express approval from Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for conducting a data search. Also, the DEA program was used a lot more often than the NSA surveillance. USA Today reported that DEA analysts performed as many as 300 routine searches on its database in a day, while the NSA reports a similar number of searches made on its database in the whole of 2012.

However, two years after the Snowden disclosures, proponents of spy reforms have been frustrated at the apathy towards such reforms. In November 2014, a bill presented to the Senate, seeking to reform the NSA intelligence surveillance, could not penetrate the GOP opposition and so failed to see the light of day. And there is even a greater fear such reforms may not be taking place any time soon in a Senate of Republicans.

As a probable sign of hope, an article on USA Today reveals that the Snowden disclosures may have influenced government’s surveillance modus operandi. A similar but more restricted program has been introduced to take the place of DEA’s bulk phone-collection. This program sends subpoenas to companies on a daily basis, for logs on calls from phone numbers which are suspected by agents to have drug and other criminal dealings.

The fight for NSA surveillance reforms by Snowden sympathizers may not yet be completely won, but results are already trickling in; Snowden killed a mass-surveillance program – the DEA program.

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