Taking on the DEA’s ‘Hemisphere’ program

San Francisco, California (EFF) ­– The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today filed lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Justice and the California Attorney General’s office demanding records that shed light on a secret drug enforcement program that allows federal and local law enforcement agents to obtain citizens’ phone call records from AT&T.

The ”Hemisphere” program, which is funded by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), places AT&T employees within law enforcement agencies to help investigators get quick access to call records stored with the company, according to a New York Times report from 2013. Hemisphere covers all calls passing through an AT&T switch—not just those made by AT&T customers—and includes calls going back to 1987, the Times revealed. Investigators using the program were urged to ”keep the program under the radar” and use the call records in such a way as to keep Hemisphere’s information ”walled off” from public scrutiny, according to government documents disclosed by the Times.

EFF filed Freedom of Information Act and Public Records Act requests last year, looking for answers about Hemisphere. But the Justice Department and the California Attorney General released only heavily and improperly redacted records, withholding important information about the program and how it is used by law enforcement. In lawsuits filed in both state and federal court in San Francisco today, EFF asked judges to order the Justice Department and California to turn over the requested records.

”The federal government, specifically the Drug Enforcement Administration, has taken pains to hide its use of Hemisphere, telling police agencies to ‘never refer to Hemisphere in any official document,”’ said Hanni Fakhoury, EFF senior staff attorney. ”The public has a right to know about this vast phone call records program.”

White House records disclosed by the New York Times revealed that Hemisphere is coordinated in part through the California Attorney General’s Los Angeles Regional Criminal Information Clearing House (LACLEAR), an intelligence support center for Los Angeles drug enforcement activities.

EFF’s request under the California Public Records Act asked LACLEAR for documents about its involvement in Hemisphere, including training materials, contracts between it and federal agencies, and communications about the use of program between LACLEAR and federal and state agencies. However, after a lengthy delay, LACLEAR produced only 99 pages of PowerPoint presentations about training—many of which were redacted in full to hide the names of police squads that used Hemisphere and the law enforcement agencies involved in the Hemisphere request process.

The Justice Department similarly withheld documents, providing only heavily redacted, and essentially worthless, records after EFF filed its FOIA request in February 2014.

prescription drugs. Image Source: Stephan Rosger, Flickr, Creative Commons

prescription drugs.
Image Source: Stephan Rosger, Flickr, Creative Commons

”These lawsuits seek transparency over a program that allows law enforcement agencies to tap into a vast phone record database without court oversight,” said Jennifer Lynch, EFF senior staff attorney. ”The agencies are misusing public records laws to hide information that is crucial to understanding how the Hemisphere program is being used.”