When Richard Nixon wanted his minions to run a super-secret surveillance operation that came to be known as the White House Plumbers, the president had it set up in Room 16 in the basement of the Executive Office Building. A recent White House memo obtained and reported by Wired shows that a massive dragnet surveillance program – warrantlessly scooping up phone records from Americans by the trillions – is now being run out of the White House today.
This program, currently called Data Analytical Services (DAS) allows federal, state, and local law enforcement to mine the details, though not the content, of Americans’ calls. As a study at Stanford University showed, metadata alone can reveal startling amounts of highly personal information. When the government adds “chain analysis” – moving outward from one target to the person he or she communicated with, and on to the next person – vast networks of associational groups, whether religious, political, or journalistic, can be X-rayed.
“In response to a 2019 Freedom of Information Act request the Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability filed jointly with Demand Progress, we received a document from the Drug Enforcement Administration with a redaction into which one could easily fit the word ‘Hemisphere’” said Gene Schaerr, PPSA general counsel. “Hemisphere was the name of this warrantless surveillance program until it was rebranded as Data Analytical Services. Clearly, the government was holding on to something it didn’t want us to see. We had no idea, however, they were hiding it in the White House. With the ‘two-hop’ rule, government at all levels can not only target an individual, but also her spouse, children, parents, and friends.
“This is nothing less than warrantless, dragnet surveillance at the national level,” Schaerr said.
There is as of yet no evidence that implicates this program in political surveillance. But as with the Nixon Administration, running a program out of the White House has unique advantages. In the current era, a White House operation is not subject to the requirement to review its privacy impacts. It also cannot be subject to FOIA requests. Wired reports that the memo shows that over the years the White House has provided more than $6 million to target the records of any calls that cross AT&T’s infrastructure. Wired also reports that White House funding had intermittent starts and cancellations under the current and last two presidents. Still, the program seems to have been in continuous operation for over a decade.
Internal records suggest that the government can access records held by AT&T for at least ten years. These records include the names of callers and recipients, the dates and times of their calls, and their location histories, although the 2018 Supreme Court opinion, Carpenter v. United States, established a warrant requirement for location data.
On Sunday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) fired off a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland saying, “I have serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program, and the materials provided by the DOJ contain troubling information that would justifiably outrage many Americans and other Members of Congress.”
This breaking news story is certain to provide more momentum for the Government Surveillance Reform Act (GSRA), and the inclusion of a broad warrant requirement and other reforms within a House Judiciary Committee reform bill now being drafted. As this story makes clear, we must have these reforms before any extension of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act can be contemplated.