The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is doing more than its share of spying on Americans’ phone calls, texts, e-mails, and other electronic communications.
In the past decade, the federal agency has more than tripled the surveillance it conducts. Most of this has been done without any federal oversight. Typically, federal judges have to sign off on wiretapping and other electronic intercepts by federal agencies, but the DEA makes a regular practice of sidestepping that typical practice.
In a 12-month period ending in September 2014, the DEA intercepted 11,681 communications — more than three times the total for the same 12-month period ending September 2004. The agency avoided federal judges and Justice Department lawyers, who are being held to a higher standard since the Snowden revelations. Instead, it has opted to seek the desired warrants from local prosecutors and judges in at least 60 percent of those cases, USA Today reports. The agency has an easier time getting approval from local judges and prosecutors because they are less involved in the cases and are loaded down with their own work. Moreover, because local judges and prosecutors are spread out from New York to California, it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to have any real grasp of the scope of the surveillance being conducted.
The DEA and other federal agencies are required by federal law to obtain approval from a senior Justice Department official before even seeking a warrant for electronic surveillance from a federal judge. No such law exists when the warrant is sought from a local judge. As Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), explains, “That law exists to make sure that wiretap authority is not abused, that it’s only used when totally appropriate. That’s a burden. And if there’s a way to get around that burden, the agents are going to try to get around it.”
In most cases, it appears they are succeeding.