Skip to main content

Don't expect NSA reform to matter as long as there's still a war on drugs

Don't expect NSA reform to matter as long as there's still a war on drugs


Surveillance hawks just need a reason, any reason

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Before the war on terror was born, there was the war on drugs — and despite the recent erosion in punitive drug laws across the US, the federal war on drugs is still expanding. USA Today reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) conducted 11,681 electronic intercepts in 2014, up from 3,394 just a decade earlier. This sharp increase has been made possible, USA Today reports, because the DEA has circumvented federal judges in favor of state courts that may have less rigorous requirements for obtaining warrants.

A DEA spokesman told USA Today that the increase in wiretaps can be explained by "the proliferation of communication devices and methods" used by drug traffickers. Of course, it would be easy to substitute "drug traffickers" for "terrorists," and the US commonly does — the DEA and NSA have shared talking points on the sophistication of their enemies when justifying broad surveillance measures.

It's no coincidence the war on terror looks like the war on drugs

It's no coincidence that the war on terror and the war on drugs look very similar. Before government officials began linking poppy fields in Afghanistan to funding for terrorism after 9/11, and before the NSA began its aggressive metadata dragnet, the DEA ran a decades-long program capturing phone records for every call coming in and out of the US. Maybe it's no surprise, then, that the DEA and NSA problematically worked together after 9/11 to bust Americans for drug crimes. The phone dragnets took a hit this week when the Senate finally passed a surveillance reform bill, but the measure is just one cork in a very leaky boat. The Justice Department has been tracking millions of vehicles across the US as part of a DEA effort to build a national database of driver movements, and there are plenty of other ways to use existing legal authorities to spy on citizens without strong judicial review.

While the DEA's state-authorized wiretaps may pass more constitutional muster than the kind of warrantless surveillance the agency pioneered in the 1990s, its behavior in seeking out state courts to bypass strict federal scrutiny fits a pattern of seeking dubious means to "enforcement." The agency has abused federal asset forfeiture laws to steal money from Americans who are guilty of no wrongdoing; in one case, The Atlantic reported, the agency seized $16,000 from a 22-year-old who was traveling from Michigan to Los Angeles on an Amtrak train to start a new life as a music video producer. In 2014, the Associated Press revealed that the agency paid $854,460 under the table to an unnamed Amtrak secretary to obtain information about passengers.

As long as the US continues to fight wars it can't win, expect to see more of the same.