For at least six years, law enforcement officials working on a counternarcotics program have had routine access, using subpoenas, to an enormous AT&T database that contains the records of decades of Americans’ phone calls — parallel to but covering a far longer time than the National Security Agency’s hotly disputed collection of phone call logs.
The Hemisphere Project, a partnership between federal and local drug officials and AT&T that has not previously been reported, involves an extremely close association between the government and the telecommunications giant.
The government pays AT&T to place its employees in drug-fighting units around the country. Those employees sit alongside Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local detectives and supply them with the phone data from as far back as 1987.
The scale and longevity of the data storage appears to be unmatched by other government programs, including the N.S.A.’s gathering of phone call logs under the Patriot Act. The N.S.A. stores the data for nearly all calls in the United States, including phone numbers and time and duration of calls, for five years. Unlike the N.S.A. data, the Hemisphere data includes information on the locations of callers.
Hemisphere covers every call that passes through an AT&T switch — not just those made by AT&T customers — and includes calls dating back 26 years, according to Hemisphere training slides bearing the logo of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Some four billion call records are added to the database every day, the slides say; technical specialists say a single call may generate more than one record.
The slides were given to The New York Times by Drew Hendricks, a peace activist in Port Hadlock, Wash. He said he had received the PowerPoint presentation, which is unclassified but marked “Law enforcement sensitive,” in response to a series of public information requests to West Coast police agencies.
The program was started in 2007, according to the slides, and has been carried out in great secrecy.
“All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document,” one slide says. A search of the Nexis database found no reference to the program in news reports or Congressional hearings.
The Obama administration acknowledged the extraordinary scale of the Hemisphere database and the unusual embedding of AT&T employees in government drug units in three states.
Officials said four AT&T employees are now working in what is called the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which brings together D.E.A. and local investigators — two in the program’s Atlanta office and one each in Houston and Los Angeles.
Mr. Hendricks filed the public records requests while assisting other activists who have filed a federal lawsuit saying that a civilian intelligence analyst at an Army base near Tacoma infiltrated and spied on antiwar groups. (Federal officials confirmed that the slides are authentic.)
Mark A. Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T, declined to answer more than a dozen detailed questions, including ones about what percentage of phone calls made in the United States were covered by Hemisphere, the size of the Hemisphere database, whether the AT&T employees working on Hemisphere had security clearances and whether the company has conducted any legal review of the program
“While we cannot comment on any particular matter, we, like all other companies, must respond to valid subpoenas issued by law enforcement,” Mr. Siegel wrote in an e-mail.
Representatives from Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile all declined to comment on Sunday in response to questions about whether their companies were aware of Hemisphere or participated in that program or similar ones. A federal law enforcement official said that the Hemisphere Project was “singular” and that he knew of no comparable program involving other phone companies.
UPDATE 09/10/2014 Hemisphere Project Summary – Office of National Drug Control Policy via Dustin Slaughter
A 24-slide presentation obtained by The Declaration from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) detailing the Hemisphere phone record collection program, which is part of counterdrug operations within the Philadelphia-Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (PC-HIDTA).
“So who owns the telephone switches used by Hemisphere? The carriers or someone else?”
“This mostly just makes it mysterious why NSA needed its own database; sounds like Hemisphere had it all…”
“The first rule of HEMISPHERE club is, well you know. (Slide 13)”
“Note interesting redactions in HEMISPHERE deck: at least one call type it captures. No mention of SMS, cell sites.”
“Apparently you can get investigated if an unspecified algorithm decides you’re a dropped or add’l phone of a target.”