As new reporting by USA Today on Wednesday exposed the scope of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s two-decade secret surveillance operation against American citizens, dubbed USTO and first publicly revealed in January, a human rights organization filed suit for what it called unconstitutional overreach of government power.
In its lawsuit against the DEA, filed Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said that the agency’s operation, which collected bulk data on billions of Americans’ international phone calls without a warrant, jeopardized the nonprofit organization’s work.
“At Human Rights Watch we work with people who are sometimes in life or death situations, where speaking out can make them a target,” HRW general counsel Dinah PoKempner said in a press release after the organization filed suit. “Whom we communicate with and when is often extraordinarily sensitive—and it’s information that we wouldn’t turn over to the government lightly.”
USA Today revealed new details about USTO, which started a decade before 9/11 and developed significantly during then-President George H.W. Bush’s administration—and eventually came to serve as a prototype for the NSA’s more recent surveillance operations:
The list of countries included in the sweep totaled up to 116 and reached not just Iran, as the DEA has previously admitted, but nations virtually throughout the world—in Central America, South America, Europe, Asia, western Africa, and the Caribbean, as well as Canada.
“The DEA’s program is yet another example of federal agencies overreaching their surveillance authority in secret. We want a court to force the DEA to destroy the records it illegally collected and to declare—once and for all—that bulk collection of Americans’ records is unconstitutional.”
—Mark Rumold, Electronic Frontier Foundation
In its press release following the lawsuit filing, HRW explained, “Human Rights Watch and its staff work regularly on issues in countries the DEA has targeted, investigating and documenting human rights abuses by communicating with witnesses and victims…. It is unclear what safeguards, if any, were in place to prevent further misuse or abuse of the shared records by foreign governments.”
Mark Rumold, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing HRW in its lawsuit, added, “The DEA’s program is yet another example of federal agencies overreaching their surveillance authority in secret. We want a court to force the DEA to destroy the records it illegally collected and to declare—once and for all—that bulk collection of Americans’ records is unconstitutional.”
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