The U.S. government started keeping secret records of Americans’ international telephone calls nearly a decade before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, tracking billions of calls and providing a blueprint for the broader National Security Agency surveillance that followed, reports USA Today. For more than two decades, the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed logs of most calls from the U.S. to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking. The targeted countries changed over time but included Canada, Mexico and most of Central and South America.
Investigators used the call records to track drug cartels’ distribution networks in the U.S., allowing agents to detect previously unknown trafficking rings and money handlers. They used the records to help rule out foreign ties to the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City and to identify U.S. suspects in a wide range of other investigations. The Justice Department revealed the operation in January, but its history and vast scale of that operation have not been disclosed until now. To keep the program secret, DEA sought not to use the information as evidence in criminal prosecutions or in its justification for warrants or other searches.