Members of the Texas National Guard operating on a border levee in Hidalgo County in March 2017. (Scott Nicol)

After Observer Story, Congressman Questions DEA’s Secretive Surveillance Partnership with Texas National Guard

“I want to know why a federal law enforcement agency is working with a military unit,” Congressman Joaquin Castro said in an interview.

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Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro is asking the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to explain its role in the use of controversial cellphone spying devices on surveillance aircraft owned by the Texas National Guard, after the Observer first reported on the partnership in November.

The Texas National Guard quietly spent more than $373,000 in state asset drug forfeiture money last year to install the secretive data-gathering equipment on two surveillance aircraft it uses to assist the DEA in counter-narcotics operations. The military unit has refused to provide details of the program to the Observer.

Manufactured by the Maryland-based Digital Receiver Technology Inc., the devices mimic cellphone towers by tricking smartphones within a geographic area of up to one-third of a mile into connecting with the technology, usually without users or telecom companies ever knowing. Also known as cell-site simulators or “dirt boxes” after the company’s acronym, the surveillance equipment is capable of intercepting the user’s location, phone numbers dialed, text messages and photos as well as listening in on calls.

U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro  Wikimedia

Castro, a San Antonio Democrat who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview Tuesday that he wants to know how the Texas National Guard is using the information it’s collecting and whether the DEA is partnering with the state agency to circumvent federal privacy protections.

“I want to know why a federal law enforcement agency is working with a military unit that is not law enforcement,” he said. “And I want to make sure that the privacy of Texans is being protected.”

Privacy experts have referred to the use of the devices as a “digital dragnet” because the technology is so powerful it’s impossible to avoid intercepting personal information from innocent cellphone users during the pursuit of investigative targets.

In the November 29 letter addressed to DEA Acting Administrator Robert Patterson, Castro asks whether the federal agency is obtaining a search warrant before using the surveillance devices, which is mandated under federal privacy rules. The congressman is also requesting information on the Texas National Guard’s role in the agreement. “The Guard is a military force under the command of the governor, not a law enforcement agency,” Castro notes in the letter.

RC-26B surveillance aircraft  SSGT CHERYL HACKLEY, USAF

The Texas National Guard has refused to say what steps, if any, it takes to secure a warrant prior to deploying the devices, or where the dirt boxes are being used. State Representative César Blanco, citing “really big privacy and constitutional due-process concerns,” called on the Legislature to create a state “oversight body” for the Guard last month.

Castro said he is seeking answers from the DEA by the end of the week, but so far the agency hasn’t replied.