November 20, 2023

Wyden Urges Justice Department to Release Information About ‘Hemisphere’ Phone Surveillance Program that would Outrage Americans and Congress

Unclassified Documents Contain Troubling Information About Dragnet Phone Surveillance Program

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to make public documents related to the Hemisphere phone surveillance program, which allows federal, state, local and Tribal law enforcement agencies to request searches of trillions of U.S. phone records, usually without warrants.

Although the documents are not classified, the Justice Department has marked them as “Law Enforcement Sensitive,” which is meant to prevent them from being publicly released. In a letter to Garland sent today, Wyden urged the department to remove those restrictions. 

“I have serious concerns about the legality of this surveillance program, and the materials provided by the DOJ contain troubling information that would justifiably outrage many Americans and other members of Congress,” Wyden wrote. “While I have long defended the government’s need to protect classified sources and methods, this surveillance program is not classified and its existence has already been acknowledged by the DOJ in federal court. The public interest in an informed debate about government surveillance far outweighs the need to keep this information secret.”

Under the Hemisphere program, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) indirectly pays AT&T to allow any federal, state, local or Tribal law enforcement agency to search AT&T customers’ phone records as far back as 1987, according to public records about the program. 

Hemisphere has not been subjected to a federal Privacy Impact Assessment because of its unique funding structure. Rather than directly funding the surveillance program, the ONDCP provides a grant to the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, which in turn pays AT&T to operate this surveillance program. Law enforcement agencies nationwide are able to request Hemisphere searches, including for investigations that are not drug related, Houston HIDTA officials told Wyden’s office. 

The bipartisan Government Surveillance Reform Act would require a court order for surveillance of Americans’ phone records, the same standard currently required for the government to obtain historical email and instant message metadata records.

Read the full letter to Attorney General Garland here.