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Blueprint for Post-9/11 Surveillance: U.S. Began Bulk Collection of Phone Call Data in 1992

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An explosive new report reveals the federal government secretly tracked billions of U.S. phone calls years before the 9/11 attacks. According to USA Today, the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration collected bulk data for phone calls in as many as 116 countries deemed to have a connection with drug trafficking. The program began in 1992 under President George H.W. Bush, nine years before his son, George W. Bush, authorized the National Security Agency to gather logs of Americans’ phone calls in 2001. This program served as a blueprint for NSA mass surveillance. We speak with Brad Heath, the USA Today investigative reporter who broke the story.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with an explosive new report that reveals the federal government secretly tracked billions of U.S. phone calls years before the 9/11 attacks. It reveals Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration collected bulk data for phone calls in as many as 116 countries deemed to have a connection with drug trafficking.

AMY GOODMAN: The program began in 1992 and served as a blueprint for mass surveillance by the National Security Agency. For more, we go to Washington, D.C., to Brad Heath, the USA Today reporter who broke this story, headlined "U.S. Secretly Tracked Billions of Calls for Decades."

Brad, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what you found.

BRAD HEATH: Sure. The Justice Department announced, or revealed, I guess, back in January that it had been gathering up telephone metadata, the same stuff that’s on your phone bill, for calls to designated foreign countries. And it left a lot of unanswered questions. And what we found in looking at it was that this is a program that was older than I expected and ended up being a lot broader than I expected. You know, I guess it’s no surprise that they were looking at Colombia and Mexico. But 116 countries is a pretty expansive list. And for a long time, they were keeping records of basically all calls from the United States to all of those places, as a way, at first, to try to find drug cartels and their networks in the United States, and then it became a much more expansive thing.

The case in which they finally revealed it was a guy who was charged with trying to export electrical equipment to Iran, so not a drug case at all. And the thing that really surprised me the most was that, you know, when the DOJ and the DEA first said they’d been doing this, a lot of people speculated, well, here’s another example of kind of war on terror tactics that are being applied to domestic law enforcement. And it’s actually the other way around, that this started nine-and-a-half years before September 11th in George H.W. Bush’s administration, and this was the blueprint for a lot of what NSA started doing after September 11th.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Brad Heath, we’ll link to your report, investigative reporter at USA Today.

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