Pubdate: Wed, 28 Jan 2015
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2015 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Devlin Barrett


Proposal Within DEA in 2009 Was Never Carried Out, Justice Department 
Officials Say

WASHINGTON - A federal agent proposed using license-plate readers to 
scan vehicles around gun shows in order to aid gun-trafficking 
investigations, according to an internal Justice Department email.

Justice Department officials said Tuesday that the 2009 proposal was 
rejected by superiors and never implemented. The email was part of a 
series of Drug Enforcement Administration documents describing how 
the agency is building a national database tracking the movements of 
vehicles in the U.S. The documents were obtained by the American 
Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act request 
and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

"The proposal in the email was only a suggestion. It was never 
authorized by DEA, and the idea under discussion in the email was 
never launched," according to DEA administrator Michele Leonhart.

National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the NRA 
is "looking into this to see if gun owners were improperly targeted, 
and has no further comment until we have all the facts."  The 
proposal shows the challenges and risks facing the U.S. as it looks 
to new, potentially intrusive surveillance technology to help stop 
criminals. Many of the government's recent efforts have scooped up 
data from innocent Americans, as well as those suspected of crimes, 
creating records that lawmakers and others say raise privacy concerns.

The Journal reported Monday that the DEA, an arm of the Justice 
Department, has been quietly building a database to monitor and store 
data about vehicles on major highways. Internal documents show the 
primary goal of the database is asset forfeiture, a controversial 
practice of seizing motorists' possessions if police officers suspect 
they are criminal proceeds. Sometimes, those seizures take place 
without evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Many state and local law-enforcement agencies are accessing the 
database for a variety of investigations, according to people 
familiar with the program, putting a wealth of information in the 
hands of local officials who can track vehicles in real time on major roadways.

Justice Department officials have defended the license-plate database 
program as legal and effective in interdicting drugs, finding missing 
children and catching violent criminals. Privately, many 
law-enforcement officials argue that there are numerous such 
databases in private hands, and if private companies can use them to 
collect debts or repossess cars, the government should be able to use 
them to catch criminals.

The 2009 email is heavily redacted so as not to disclose the sender, 
recipient or much of the text beyond a single sentence: "DEA Phoenix 
Division office is working closely with [the Bureau of Alcohol, 
Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] on attacking the guns going to 
[redacted] and the guns shows, to include programs/operation with 
[license-plate readers] at the gun shows."

Justice Department officials said the ATF never engaged in the 
suggested surveillance of gun-show attendees.

The 2009 email was written around the time the ATF was conducting an 
ill-fated and poorly managed gun-trafficking investigation in Phoenix 
called Fast and Furious. Agents allowed sales of about 2,000 guns, 
mostly variants of AK-47 rifles, to suspected smugglers. The aim was 
to prosecute top traffickers, but many of the firearms have turned up 
at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S., and hundreds more are 
unaccounted for. The program ended up badly embarrassing the agency 
and led to a long-running fight between House Republicans and 
Attorney General Eric Holder .

The disclosure of the DEA's license-plate-reader database comes at a 
time of heightened concern about government surveillance of innocent 
Americans. In November, The Wall Street Journal reported that the 
U.S. Marshals Service flies planes carrying devices that mimic 
cellphone towers in order to scan the identifying information of 
Americans' phones as it searches for criminal suspects and fugitives. 
Justice Department officials have said the program is legal.

Earlier this month, the DEA filed court documents indicating that for 
more than a decade, it had gathered the phone records of Americans 
calling foreign countries, without judicial oversight, to sift 
through that data looking for drug suspects. That program was canceled in 2013.

The ACLU's Jay Stanley said he was glad to hear DEA officials nixed 
the program, but noted "there is unfortunately a long history of 
Americans being subject to surveillance because of their political or 
associational activities, and we see that to this day. When you 
combine that history with a powerful surveillance technology like 
license plate scanners, it raises significant concerns.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom