White House Program Enabling Mass Phone Surveillance Of Americans Could Be Illegal, Lawmaker Says

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Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden is questioning the legality of a White House program that enables law enforcement to access trillions of phone records, according to a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) published on Monday.

Wyden is pushing the DOJ to publish information on a program called Data Analytical Services (DAS), previously known as Hemisphere, for public transparency, according to the letter. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has paid AT&T over $5 million for Americans’ records, frequently without a warrant, since 2009, in what Wyden says may be an illegal program.

“I have serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program, and the materials provided by the DOJ contain troubling information that would justifiably outrage many Americans and other members of Congress,” Wyden wrote in the letter.

The program allows law enforcement to access the details of Americans’ calls and analyze the phone records of citizens, even if they are not suspected of committing a crime. Wyden characterized the program as giving law enforcement  “the ability to request often-warrantless searches of trillions of domestic phone records. ”

Despite DAS receiving funding from the White House’s ONDCP, a leaked file from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center reveals local police bureaus asked for DAS information for cases that appeared not to be related to drugs, WIRED reported.

“We obtained six months of call data for [suspect]’s phone, as well as several close associations (his girlfriend, father, sister, mother),” an officer wrote in a request for information, according to WIRED.

The DOJ gave Wyden’s office numerous pages of information about the program in 2019, which he wants the DOJ to release, according to his letter.

“This surveillance program is not classified,” Wyden wrote. “The public interest in an informed debate about government surveillance far outweighs the need to keep this information secret.”

“This is a long-running dragnet surveillance program in which the White House pays AT&T to provide all federal, state, local, and Tribal law enforcement agencies the ability to request often-warrantless searches of trillions of domestic phone records,” Wyden wrote

Since “obscure” grants fund the program rather than funds coming directly from a particular agency, it evades the typical federal privacy evaluation, according to the letter.

The New York Times first uncovered the program, referring to it as the Hemisphere Project, in 2013. A law enforcement official characterized it as “AT&T’s Super Search Engine” and “Google on Steroids,” according to documents obtained from the Drug Enforcement Administration through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits by Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2016.

Wyden is part of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers that recently introduced the Government Surveillance Reform Act to reform Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which also enables U.S. intelligence agencies to surveil American citizens without a warrant.

“We defer to the Justice Department, to whom Sen. Wyden’s letter is addressed, for comment,” an AT&T spokesperson told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Like all companies, we are required by law to comply with subpoenas, warrants and court orders from government and law enforcement agencies. To be clear, any information referred to in Sen. Wyden’s letter would be compelled by subpoena, warrant or court order.”

The White House and DOJ did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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