By David Ingram
(Reuters) - Opening another front in the legal challenges to U.S. government surveillance, a human rights group has sued the Drug Enforcement Administration for collecting bulk records of Americans' telephone calls to some foreign countries.
Lawyers for Human Rights Watch filed the lawsuit on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The lawsuit asks a judge to declare unlawful the DEA program, which ended in September 2013 after about 15 years, and to bar the DEA from collecting call records in bulk again.
U.S. spying programs have come under court scrutiny since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of them in 2013.
Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush said on Wednesday the DEA program is not active.
"All of the information has been deleted," he said in an email to Reuters. "The agency is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers."
The DEA's Special Operations Division collected data in bulk about international calls from the United States to certain countries determined by the government to have a nexus to drug trafficking.
The data included phone numbers and the date, time and duration of each call, but not the content, according to the DEA.
Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit based in New York, said the database threatened the confidentiality of its sources worldwide, such as people who have witnessed rights abuses.
"These individuals often fear for their physical safety or their life, and the mere fact of contacting an international human rights organization, like HRW, can put them in harm's way," the lawsuit said.
Because of the DEA program, it said, the group "cannot assure its associates abroad that their communications records will not be shared with American law enforcement or the government of another country."
DEA shared the information with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and intelligence agencies, according to records reviewed by Reuters.
The program targeted Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan and several other unidentified Central American countries, a former senior DEA official told Reuters. Another country was Iran, court records show.
Elements of the previously secret DEA program were disclosed in 2013 by Reuters and then the New York Times.
The Justice Department confirmed its existence in court papers in January, after a judge in Washington requested details about it in a criminal case about export controls.
(Reporting by David Ingram in New York, and Doina Chiacu and John Shiffman in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham and Ted Botha)