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Drug agents plumb vast database of call records

SEATTLE — For at least six years, federal drug and other agents have had near-immediate access to billions of phone call records dating back decades in a collaboration with AT&T that officials have taken pains to keep secret, newly released documents show.

The program, previously reported by ABC News and The New York Times, is called the Hemisphere Project. It’s paid for by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and it allows investigators armed with subpoenas to quickly mine the company’s vast database to help track down drug traffickers or other suspects who switch cellphones to avoid detection.

The details of the Hemisphere Project come amid a national debate about the federal government’s access to phone records, particularly the bulk collection of phone records for national security purposes. Hemisphere, however, takes a different approach from that of the National Security Agency, which maintains a database of call records handed over by phone companies as authorized by the USA Patriot Act.

“Subpoenaing drug dealers’ phone records is a bread-and-butter tactic in the course of criminal investigations,” Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said in an email. “The records are maintained at all times by the phone company, not the government. This program 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.”