The war on terror’s war on drugs

America’s National Security Agency (NSA) records and archives nearly every single phone call in the Bahamas. We’re not just talking call logs. Call content of that nation of 370,000 people is being snooped on as well.

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That came as news to the Bahamian government when The Intercept broke the story this week. NSA reportedly used the legal access granted by the Bahamas to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as cover for its secret, somewhat less legal inroad into the Bahamas mobile phone services.

America’s excuse for this vast violation of the privacy rights of an entire nation was the usual spiel about national security concerns, with one alarming but predictable twist. As the Intercept notes, this program is being used to go after “international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers.”

The website also published a partially-redacted NSA memo that notes how the lines between the wars on terror and drugs have blurred over the years, and the war on the latter has “equally high” stakes as the former.

Lines have indeed blurred. Now, while activists, advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and rare pro-freedom politicians such as Rep. Justin Amash continue to fight against NSA spying, it behooves us all to remember that it’s not just No Such Agency that we need to worry about.

If the now-toothless attempt at reform, the USA FREEDOM Act, can’t even collar the NSA, how are we supposed to go after the other enemies of privacy and freedom such as the DEA, especially when they’re so cozy with the other federal agencies?

The line between soldiers and cops became hazy under presidents Nixon and Reagan. But it wasn’t until George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Panama that the idea of the war on drugs as a grand, international campaign really took off.

Then, after September 11, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan included eliminating opium as a cash crop. This sentiment was illustrated in a series of painfully embarrassing Office of Drug Control Policy ads that suggested to buy drugs was to directly support terrorism.

Since that semi-disastrous PR move, the drugs equal terrorism equation has been more subtle when coming from official sources, but it never went away. The DEA doesn’t just have agents who kick in the doors of Californians to find pot, it also has commando squads in Honduras now.

According to The Intercept, the DEA has 80 international offices. They basically are spies now, and revel in it. Plenty of times, such as in the Bahamas, the DEA operates with permission from foreign countries – though that could change after the latest scoop.

Individual rights devoured in the name of fighting drugs are the same ones which lead to war on terror violations of rights. The drug war, after all, began first. Even post 9/11, most Fourth Amendment-crushing investigations are stamping out narcotics.

When the American Civil Liberties Union looked at sneak and peek warrants – which allow the government to search your property without informing you any such intrusion took place – issued between 2009 and 2010, 76 percent were used for drug investigations. The PATRIOT Act made such warrants easier in the name of saving us all from another Bin Laden, yet the powers granted are most often used to look for drug dealers.

Flash forward to last summer, post Edward Snowden outing himself, when Reuters broke the story of the DEA’s use of so-called parallel construction in their investigations. This means that if someone in the intelligence community (perhaps the NSA!) spies something in a wiretap, a database, or after an informant tip-off, he tell the DEA to begin an investigation of a drug dealer.

Though it was NSA snooping that found the alleged criminal activity, that fact in itself is classified. Defendants, lawyers, and judges cannot review the evidence against them when they don’t know its true source. DEA agents then “reverse engineer” the investigation until they find a suitable public origin of the charges against the defendant and – presto! – conviction time.

In September 2013, more news of DEA dirty dealings was revealed, this time by The New York Times. The subject was the Hemisphere Project, a massive database of phone records that had been in existence since 1987, and had been accessed by the DEA for at least the past six years.

This database went back further than the NSA’s eve. And thanks to third party doctrine, it was probably nice and legal. “Third party doctrine” — based on several Supreme Court decisions — means that if you disclose information to businesses yourself (and this can apply, generally, to phone calls, bank records, internet cloud computing, and other electronic forms of communication) you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

With Hemisphere, the feds sensibly cut out the middle man. They placed AT&T employees in DEA field offices, then had them keep and access the database at federal law enforcement request. Oddly, this disturbing news did not have the same headline-staying power as any of the NSA leaks.

The drug war wasn’t enough for the DEA. Massively curtailed Fourth Amendment rights weren’t enough. Trying to read your medical files wasn’t enough. Civil asset forfeiture that is simply theft was not enough. The drug agency also finds it necessary to help the NSA tap the entirety of the Bahamas’s phones. They, after all, have a “vibrant, two-way information sharing relationship” with the NSA.

The DEA ought to be stopped, among other reasons, because its agents have been playing cowboy and spy and mission creeping for far too long. Have the folks desperately trying to keep the NSA from being reformed ever stopped to consider whether they couldn’t just acquiesce, then have another agency pick up the slack? How hard could it be, since the DEA is now spying so readily?

It’s difficult to know how to reform even one agency, as we can easily see in the disappointing state of the USA FREEDOM Act — so bad that co-sponsor Rep. Amash decided not to vote for it at all. Even without the “vibrant” redundancy within law enforcement and national security agencies, reforming or abolishing any one is daunting and would take years of tireless effort.

What to do? Keep on fighting the NSA, by all means, but never assume that once that’s done, our liberties will be secure. There’s a lot more where the NSA came from.

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