DEA accesses Americans' phone records dating back to ...

Where were you in 1987?  Gary Hart had to bail out of the 1988 presidential race after photos surfaced of Donna Rice sitting on his lap.  Oliver North admitted to shredding documents in the Iran-Contra scandal.  The Dow dropped 508 points and shocked Wall Street. On television, Star Trek: The Next Generation started its seven-season run, and A Different World spun off from The Cosby Show for the first of its six seasons.

And, if you made a call that went through AT&T switches, you contributed to the DEA’s phone-records search capabilities at its start, too:

For at least six years, law enforcement officials working on a counternarcotics program have had routine access, using subpoenas, to an enormous AT&T database that contains the records of decades of Americans’ phone calls — parallel to but covering a far longer time than the National Security Agency’s hotly disputed collection of phone call logs.

The Hemisphere Project, a partnership between federal and local drug officials and AT&T that has not previously been reported, involves an extremely close association between the government and the telecommunications giant.

The government pays AT&T to place its employees in drug-fighting units around the country. Those employees sit alongside Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local detectives and supply them with the phone data from as far back as 1987. …

The scale and longevity of the data storage appears to be unmatched by other government programs, including the N.S.A.’s gathering of phone call logs under the Patriot Act. The N.S.A. stores the data for nearly all calls in the United States, including phone numbers and time and duration of calls, for five years.

This is akin to the NSA surveillance, but there is one crucial difference — and it really is the crucial difference.  The DEA is not collecting and storing the data on its own, but is instead searching the databases maintained by AT&T.  Those searches only get conducted, at least according to the NYT’s reporting, when investigators acquire an administrative subpoena for specific surveillance.  This was the point that was left unclear in the revelation last month of DEA surveillance and manufacturing of evidence trails.

Now, this still raises more than a few real questions, especially the use of administrative subpoenas, which are issued without any judicial oversight.  It essentially means that a federal agency has reviewed its own surveillance request and approved it, which doesn’t provide a lot of checks against abuses.  (Put on top of that the Department of Justice investigating its own subordinate agency, the DEA, in this practice.)  However, this isn’t quite the same thing as the NSA’s active capture of communications records from most if not all Americans over several years.  In this case, the telecom (AT&T) has held onto its records, and at least requires some sort of subpoena before granting access to the data.

When this was proposed as a means for the NSA to conduct their surveillance — seeking the subpoena first and requiring telecoms to hold the data — the intelligence community scoffed at the notion, saying it was impractical for telecoms and for rapid investigations.  The DEA and AT&T seem to think otherwise.  What other telecoms are cooperating with the DEA in this endeavor? And why isn’t the NSA operating in this manner, rather than defaulting to building its own massive databases of citizen transactions without any probable cause for 99.999% of those whose records are collected?