(Washington, DC) – Human Rights Watch filed suit on April 7, 2015, against the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for illegally collecting records of the organization’s telephone calls to foreign countries.

The DEA disclosed the existence of its mass surveillance program in January 2015, after a federal judge ordered the government to disclose more information about the program. The agency made the disclosure in a criminal case against a man accused of violating export restrictions on goods to Iran.

“At Human Rights Watch we work with people who are sometimes in life or death situations, where speaking out can make them a target,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Whom we communicate with and when is often extraordinarily sensitive – and it’s information that we wouldn’t turn over to the government lightly.”

Human Rights Watch is represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has filed a series of legal challenges against unconstitutional government surveillance.

The surveillance program, operated by the DEA and other federal agencies, collects telephone metadata – data about the numbers people call, and the time, date, and duration of those calls – on a mass scale. News reports have stated that the operation gathered records on calls to over 100 countries. 

Human Rights Watch and its staff work regularly on issues in countries the DEA has targeted, investigating and documenting human rights abuses by communicating with witnesses and victims.

In a declaration filed in the criminal case in January, a DEA agent described the program as collecting telephone records of calls made from the US to “designated foreign countries” connected with international drug trafficking. The declaration revealed that the DEA relied on administrative subpoenas to amass the database of Americans’ call record data. The DEA obtained the records without judicial oversight or approval.

News reports have said that the program, operated by the agency’s special operations division, began its bulk collection in the 1990s, using the collected records to create a database for domestic criminal investigations. The information was shared with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security for reasons unrelated to drug trafficking, media reports said. In some cases, information was also allegedly shared with foreign law enforcement agencies. It is unclear what safeguards, if any, were in place to prevent further misuse or abuse of the shared records by foreign governments. 

“The DEA’s program is yet another example of federal agencies overreaching their surveillance authority in secret,” said Mark Rumold, staff attorney at the EFF. “We want a court to force the DEA to destroy the records it illegally collected and to declare – once and for all – that bulk collection of Americans’ records is unconstitutional.”    

Although the DEA has indicated the program was “suspended” in 2013, this suit seeks to ensure the program is permanently terminated, that it cannot restart, and that all of Human Rights Watch’s illegally collected records have been purged from all government systems.

“The DEA surveillance program puts human rights defenders and victims of abuses in grave danger,” PoKempner said. “Such surveillance effectively chills the use of telephones to collect human rights information in some of the world’s most dangerous situations, in some of the world’s most dangerous countries.”

To read the full complaint in Human Rights Watch v DEA, please visit: