Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA and its surveillance tactics may have riled people up, but the agency apparently took its cue from two other government departments: the DEA and the DoJ. For almost 10 years before 9/11 took place, the agencies secretly kept records of billions of international phone calls placed by Americans, a USA Today investigation has uncovered. Current and ex-officials involved in the clandestine program spoke to the newspaper (mostly anonymously) and say that when the surveillance was in full swing, it was collecting data for calls to more than 100 countries (one official placed the number at 116, out of 195 countries the US recognizes worldwide as independent states). The purpose of the data collection, per USA Today: to flesh out US distribution networks for international drug cartels.
The initiative took root in the '80s when the DEA wasn't making headway using undercover agents and other methods to bust up Colombian drug cartels, the newspaper reports. The call database reportedly didn't include callers' names or even the content of the calls—instead, it noted the date and time that international numbers were called, which it then attempted to cross-link back to data from other intelligence databases. AG Eric Holder is said to have halted the program in 2013 after "it was made abundantly clear ... they couldn't defend both [the DEA and NSA] programs," a Justice Department official tells the paper; the database was also allegedly "purged" by the DEA. A DoJ spokesman says the department "is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from US service providers"; a DEA spokesman declined comment. (Read the entire history documented in the USA Today article, including how similar the DEA program was to the NSA one.)