LOS ANGELES (CN) – Human Rights Watch on Monday dropped legal claims over a Drug Enforcement Administration bulk-surveillance program, confirming the database used to store call records was destroyed this year.
“Today we can declare victory and voluntarily dismiss our case,” Human Rights Watch senior coordinator Henry Peck said in a statement, adding that while bulk collection still continues overseas “we can celebrate a small victory for transparency and legality today, and hope for further victories to come.”
Human Rights Watch filed a federal complaint in April, claiming the bulk collection of billions of call records in more than 100 nations violated the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Since the 1990s, the DEA collected the data to fight international drug trafficking, the group claimed.
The government insisted that it had suspended the program since 2013, and asked U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierre to dismiss the case for lack of standing. Gutierre, however, ordered the government to respond to the group’s questions about the database.
In a two-page notice filed on Monday, the group’s attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the government had provided “additional information through discovery concerning the destruction of call records collected in bulk.”
“In a victory for millions of people in the U.S. who have placed telephone calls to locations overseas, EFF and Human Rights Watch have confirmed that the Drug Enforcement Administration’s practice of collecting those records in bulk has stopped and that the only bulk database of those records has been destroyed,” EFF attorney Mark Rumold said in a written statement.
The government assured Human Rights Watch it ended the program under penalty of perjury and Rumold said the group wanted answers because there had been too much “double-speak from the government to take those statements at face value.”
“We wanted them to answer our questions about the program, on our terms,” Rumold said.
The government confirmed that it stored call records on the DEA database, that it did not make “wholesale copies” of the data, and only searched the database when officials had a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a phone number was part of an ongoing investigation.
Call records older than two years were automatically deleted, Rumold wrote, and the government stopped using the database in August 2013.
“By January 2015, the DEA had deleted the bulk database. This included destruction of any temporary files used to standardize the records after obtaining them from phone providers,” Rumold wrote.
The attorney said the government “still retains some illegally collected records” in PDF files but only keeps records “returned in response to a query of the database.”
“It also appears that, when the program was operational, agencies were instructed to destroy reports generated from querying the database after the reports were no longer needed, presumably in order to conceal the existence of the program,” Rumold added.
According to the lawsuit, the mass surveillance program was “carried out in secret for years” and was up and running in 1992.
This year, the government admitted the existence of the DEA program in a criminal case against a man accused of illegally exporting goods to Iran.
In a declaration this past January, a DEA agent said that calls made from the United States to designated foreign countries were intercepted as part of law enforcement efforts against the international drug trade.
Rumold said it is likely the National Security Agency and the DEA still undertake bulk collection of international call records.
“Nevertheless, the end of the NSA’s domestic bulk collection and now the confirmed end of the DEA’s program represents a significant step forward in curtailing some of these abuses,” Rumold said.
Earlier this year, Congress enacted the USA Freedom Act to modify the Patriot Act and end the nationwide bulk collection of call records.
U.S. Department of Justice attorney Kathryn Wyer did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
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