Los Angeles — Human Rights Watch, a nonpartisan organization that fights human rights abuses across the globe, filed suit against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration late Tuesday for illegally collecting records of its telephone calls to certain foreign countries as part of yet another government bulk surveillance program. The group is represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has launched a series of legal challenges against unconstitutional government surveillance.
“The DEA’s program of untargeted and suspicionless surveillance of Americans’ international telephone call records—information about the numbers people call, and the time, date, and duration of those calls—affects millions of innocent people, yet the DEA operated the program in secret for years,’’ said EFF Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo. “Both the First and Fourth Amendment protect Americans from this kind of overreaching surveillance. This lawsuit aims to vindicate HRW’s rights, and the rights of all Americans, to make calls overseas without being subject to government surveillance.”
The DEA disclosed the existence of its surveillance for the first time in January, after a federal judge ordered the government to reveal more information about the program. The agency made the disclosure in a criminal case against a man accused of violating export restrictions on goods to Iran. In a declaration filed in the case, a DEA agent described the then-secret program of collecting telephone records of calls made from the U.S. to “designated foreign countries’’ that are connected with international drug trafficking. The declaration revealed that DEA relied on administrative subpoenas to amass the database of Americans’ call records. The DEA obtained the records without judicial oversight or approval.
News reports say the program, run by the DEA’s special operations division, began its bulk collection in the 1990s, using the collected records to create a database for domestic criminal probes. The information was shared with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security for reasons unrelated to drug trafficking, media reports said. Although the DEA has indicated the program was “suspended” in 2013, this suit seeks to ensure the program is permanently terminated, that it cannot restart, and that all of HRW’s illegally collected records have been purged from all government systems.
Human Rights Watch and its staff work regularly on issues in countries linked to drug trafficking, communicating with victims or witnesses to human rights abuses.
“Human Rights Watch often works with people in dire circumstances around the world. Our sources are sometimes in life or death situations, and speaking out can make them a target,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel of Human Rights Watch. “Who we communicate with and when we communicate with them is often extraordinarily sensitive—and it’s information that we would never turn over to the government lightly.”
“The NSA isn’t the only federal agency collecting Americans’ call records in bulk,” said EFF staff attorney Mark Rumold. “The DEA’s program is yet another example of federal agencies overreaching their surveillance authority in secret. We are asking the court to require the government to destroy the records it illegally collected no matter where they are held, and to declare—once and for all—that bulk collection of Americans’ records is unconstitutional.’’
EFF also represents plaintiffs in First Unitarian v. NSA, a case filed in 2013; Jewel v. NSA, a class action case filed in 2008; and Smith v. Obama, a lawsuit from an Idaho emergency neonatal nurse. Those lawsuits challenge NSA programs of dragnet surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans.
For the full complaint in Human Rights Watch v DEA:
EFF Staff Attorney
EFF Staff Attorney
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch