DEA changes wiretap procedure after questionable eavesdropping cases

Posted: Tuesday August 23, 2016, 2:19 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Drug Enforcement Administration has ordered its agents to seek input from federal prosecutors before tapping Americans’ phone calls or text messages, months after it came under fire for a vast and legally questionable eavesdropping program in the Los Angeles suburbs.

The rules are a significant change for the drug agency, which had dramatically increased its use of wiretaps over the past decade by seeking authorization from state judges and prosecutors who were willing to approve the surveillance more quickly and with less scrutiny. By 2014, the DEA sent more than 60% of its wiretap applications to state courts, largely bypassing Justice Department lawyers.

The change was part of a wide-ranging review DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg ordered after he took office last year. A spokesman for the drug agency, Russ Baer, said the review identified “deficiencies” in how some agents sought approval for wiretaps.

“This is one of several areas the acting administrator looked at and said we can do better,” Baer said.

An investigation last year by USA TODAY and The Desert Sun found that the DEA and prosecutors in Riverside County, Calif., outside Los Angeles, had built a wiretapping program that secretly intercepted millions of calls and text messages based on the approval of a single state-court judge. Justice Department lawyers had warned agents that the surveillance — which at its peak accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps — likely violated a federal law.

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