The Hemisphere Project, a partnership between federal and local drug officials and AT&T, involves a close association between the government and the company for at least six years, enabling law enforcement officials, through subpoenas, to access a huge AT&T database with records of decades of Americans' phone calls, the Times said.
The government pays the telecommunications giant to place its employees in drug-fighting units nationwide, the Times said. The company employees sat alongside Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local detectives, supplying phone data from as far back as 1987.
The Times said it received Hemisphere training slides from Drew Hendricks, a peace activist in Port Hadlock, Wash., who said he received the presentation in response to public information requests. The presentation was unclassified but marked "law enforcement sensitive."
The Times said the NSA stores data for five years on nearly all calls in the United States, including phone numbers and time and duration. Unlike NSA data, the Hemisphere data includes information on the locations of callers, the Times said.
Hemisphere covers all calls passing through an AT&T switch, not just those made by AT&T customers, the training slides indicated.
The Obama administration confirmed the scale of the Hemisphere Project and the embedding of AT&T employees in government drug units in three states. Administration officials said the project uses investigative procedures used in criminal cases and wasn't a threat to privacy.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement that "subpoenaing drug dealers' phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations."
Fallon said the records were maintained "at all times by the phone company, not the government," and that Hemisphere "simply streamlines the process of serving the subpoena to the phone company so law enforcement can quickly keep up with drug dealers when they switch phone numbers to try to avoid detection."
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