I'm an investigative reporter for USA TODAY. I mostly write about law and criminal justice. I've helped get some people out of prison, and put others in. My latest story is about a phone surveillance program by the DEA and the Justice Department that started in 1992: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/04/07/dea-bulk-telephone-surveillance-operation/70808616/

My Proof: https://twitter.com/bradheath/status/585901044808417280

Comments: 122 • Responses: 22  • Date: 

trigunned39 karma

what was the biggest challenge during research? Did you get any threats?

Brad_Heath74 karma

No threats. There were two big challenges here: First, most of the people who know about the program weren't authorized to talk about it. Some did anyway, but many didn't. Second, it's been going on for so long that some of the people who were involved in the early stages don't remember a whole lot.

HeavyMetalStallion-4 karma

Did you ever consider for one second before you wrote your article that international phone calls no matter where it is going or where it is coming from, there are spy agencies in TWO countries, looking at them and that it is perfectly legal and moral?

Consider this, you don't complain about Customs checking your bag randomly at a border. Yet somehow you complain about communications going in and out of the country? What's the difference, aren't both your bag and your comms private?

It doesn't matter. This will never change anything. You're just looking for pageviews, attention, and traffic.

Every phone call going in and out of the country has been monitored in many different ways by many agencies throughout history. It didn't start in 1992, and it won't end in 2015. Every country does it. Every spy agency in every country does it.

The US is in fact the only country that has protections for YOUR international calls, that's why they invented FISA and the FISA Court.

Brad_Heath3 karma

I'd only note that the legal authority DOJ relied on for this program -- 21 U.S.C. ยง 876 -- doesn't distinguish between domestic and international records.

1q2w333 karma

What initial evidence did you see that tipped you off to there being more going on behind the scenes?

Brad_Heath45 karma

The DEA disclosed the bare bones of this program in a court filing in January. But the language was pretty spare, and it was pretty clear there were details they didn't want to talk about. Just check out the redactions: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1719876-database.html#document/p2/a212333

HeavyMetalStallion-1 karma

So why did you think this was news worthy? The DEA disclosed it. It's not like it's illegal or immoral. It's like a document fell into your lap courtesy of the DEA and you decided this can be a story to make little teenaged redditors angry about their privacy.

Brad_Heath2 karma

The DEA's disclosure was pretty bare-bones. It left a lot of questions unanswered. (Views on the legality differ; EFF and Human Rights Watch have filed a lawsuit alleging it was unconstitutional. Not sure that'll go anywhere - they'll have mootness and standing problems.)

NormalOnReddit29 karma

What persuaded you to start becoming an investigative reporter? Who was your inspiration? Thanks so much for this AMA :) Would you like to read a 14 year old's blog about finance and economics? shreysfinanceblog.com I'm only a beginner so shares and follows are much appreciated! :)

Brad_Heath31 karma

Thanks for the question. I've always found it fascinating to try to find out about things that people either don't know about, or don't want us to know about. And at some point, I was having too much fun to stop. But it's also been rewarding in ways that I didn't expect when I started out. I've seen stories have a real impact on people's lives. That's the very best part.

I checked out the blog. Looks good!

_flea21 karma

Do you think that the last few years of people exposing and discovering this kind of invasion of privacy will have any influence on future laws, policies, etc?

Brad_Heath37 karma

I think we're seeing that impact already, especially as a result of some of what Edward Snowden revealed.

The clearest example is Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is the legal authority the NSA and the Justice Department have been using to collect logs of Americans' domestic phone calls. Section 215 expires June 1. Most of the proposals to extend the program appear not to allow the NSA to keep gathering data in bulk (instead, the phone companies would keep the same records they do now, and the NSA could search them with a court order). The Obama administration has advocated for that approach. And it has said that if Section 215 expires, it will stop the data collection.

NorbitGorbit14 karma

does a lawyer or an editor vet legal stories with more scrutiny than other news items (like say, cat stuck in tree saved by goat)?

Brad_Heath53 karma

Yes. Everything we write gets edited, and most of our investigative pieces are looked at by our lawyers, too. That's pretty common. (And comforting: It turns out our lawyers are actually pretty good copy editors, too.)

Also, do we have a story about a cat being rescued by a goat? That'll be huge.

NorbitGorbit5 karma

what's the strangest change a lawyer/editor has asked for?

Brad_Heath17 karma

The best was the lawyer who, after reviewing one of our videos, recommended that I wear bronzer.

tobias2218 karma

Because of the large number of leaks and stories detailing government abuses of privacy in the news in recent years, do you sense any exasperation from people? Do you worry that people have become numb to news like this?

Brad_Heath17 karma

My guess is that some people care about this quite a lot, some don't care at all, and some never did. But don't forget how much the political dynamics have changed over the past 10 years. In 2006, USA TODAY had a huge front-page story about the NSA gathering logs of Americans' phone calls. And the government kept doing it (albeit after moving it under the supervision of the surveillance court). But now? There are a lot of people in Congress who want to end bulk data collection, as does the Obama administration.

10Miles7 karma

Are you at all worried about exposing something like this, in terms of potential repercussions?

Brad_Heath9 karma

That's always a consideration. Parts of the government have objected to stories in the past on that basis, but nobody did that with this. The main reason is probably that USTO was discontinued in 2013, and the broad outline of what the DEA was doing was already known. I was trying to get at the history and fill in some of the gaps.

freemefromyou4 karma

Are you one of the trusted journalists that came across this information via our good friend from Russia?

Brad_Heath14 karma

Nope. But my public PGP key is here: http://bradheath.org/extra/9A1806912C959D218323B6E81CC69B48F1561013.asc. Just in case.

PMzyox4 karma

Really? I thought this all was common knowledge

Brad_Heath3 karma

Some of it was. The DEA disclosed the basic outline of this collection program in a court filing in January that said the agency had been using administrative subpoenas to gather records of calls to "designated foreign countries," including Iran. What we didn't know before was the scale and longevity of that operation, and the extent to which it provided a model for the NSA's Section 215 program.

ST8R3 karma

If someone knows about an issue that an investigative reporter should look into, what's the best way to approach him or her? What gets you fired up about investigating a story?

Brad_Heath4 karma

Unless it's something incredibly sensitive, I'd probably call. I like phone calls, and I tend to answer them. I try to answer e-mails, but I get too many. And I feel a little guilty about my stack of unopened snail mail -- it's about two feet high.

(If it's something really sensitive -- Snowden? -- I might start with something else. Encrypted e-mail, call from a throwaway phone, etc.)

What I'll want to figure out right away: How are you in a position to know what you're saying? And how significant is what you're telling me, assuming it's true?

You didn't ask, but the very worst way is probably by sending a letter from prison. I've come across a few legitimate stories that way, but the signal to noise ratio is terrible. Also, in general, it's good to stay out of prison.

GoldStarClub2 karma

First let me say thank you for your work as an investigative reporter. You, and others like you, are the vanguard fighting to keep us as a functioning democracy.

Now for my question. From an outsider looking in, it appears the government is going to greater lengths to punish/identify whistleblowers. Has this had a noticeable impact on your ability to investigate government misconduct?

Brad_Heath4 karma


I think that's true. We've certainly seen a greater willingness to prosecute people who leak national security information under the Obama administration. That's had some effect. There are definitely people who have stopped talking to reporters (or at least to me), or won't talk with the same candor.

That isn't unique to whistleblowers, either. It's getting harder to pry records out of the government through FOIA, for example.

TheW1ldcard2 karma

Only 30 posts? I have to know, what was the most salacious thing you found during this whole investigation?

salacious_c2 karma

I don't think I was on there thankfully. This is definitely one of the weirdest AMAs I've seen though. Almost 1000 points, 60 comments, and sparse answers from the poster.

Brad_Heath2 karma

I'm back now.

MyUnpopularThoughts2 karma

What can we as citizens do to stop this nonsense?

Brad_Heath3 karma

Some of these issues will come up in Congress soon. Section 215 of the Patriot Act -- the part of the law the government uses to support the NSA's collection of domestic call data -- expires June 1. Lots of proposals floating around for how to change it.

hershmire2 karma

In your opinion, when after decades of this kind of mass data collection with few tangible results (they didn't even get a whiff of 9/11, drug smuggling and sales are totally untouched), why is the government's default solution to collect more and more bulk data and to hell with the consequences?

Brad_Heath2 karma

One reason the Justice Department and DEA started doing bulk data collection was that it was just faster/easier/cheaper than sending lots of targeted subpoenas. The technology's obviously a lot better now, and DEA's new approach is to use daily, targeted subpoenas. But it's still slower and more expensive.

I don't think we know yet what value the DEA got from its data collection. A lot of people said it was instrumental in building big cases, but nobody offered much in the way of specific examples. And this stuff doesn't tend to show up in the court record.

Jayou5402 karma

What are your thoughts regarding government surveillance and parallel construction? *edit.. Very curious why someone one downvote this question.. Suspect...

Brad_Heath5 karma

There's going to be a lot of litigation over this. EFF and Human Rights Watch sued the DEA over this program yesterday. There are already a bunch of cases over the NSA.

I think we're going to see that with parallel construction, too. I've spoken to a lot of criminal defense lawyers and civil libertarians who see that as a huge violation of suspects' constitutional rights. And I've spoken to people in DEA and law enforcement who don't see any problem with it at all, as long as the information they're trying to keep secret isn't used as evidence or justification for a search, etc.

It is notable that this isn't a new idea. Police have been doing this for a long time. The example they like: Somebody in a really bad neighborhood calls the police to report that there's a guy on the corner who's armed and selling drugs. The police send out a detective, who sits in his car and watches the guy sell drugs. They watch him for a while, later arrange controlled buys and eventually make a big case. Do the police have to reveal the tip? Do they have to reveal the caller's name?

semose4 karma

What? How is someone looking out their front window at a public street in any way related to the warrantless bulk collection of innocent people's phone records by the U.S. government using secret interpretations of the law? It's only called Parallel Construction when it's the government giving a tip to itself, then withholding that evidence from the Defense and the Judge.

The two are morally and legally incomparable.

Brad_Heath3 karma

The legal argument is over whether the government can conceal the information that caused it to investigate you. That could be a big surveillance operation like the DEA had, or a tip, or something in the middle. Or what if the government gives a tip to itself based on something that's indisputably legal -- if, for example, they start investigating because the defendant was mentioned on a valid Title III wiretap in another case?

I don't think that's an easy question. But however you come at it, the legal analysis probably can't turn on whether you think the source of the tip was lawful or appropriate. (Because then you couldn't withhold the tip until there's been a chance to litigate whether its source was lawful.)

LaGrandHoudino1 karma

You must hear various leads on other stories when you're doing your investigations. What are some stories that could be on the horizon?

Brad_Heath3 karma

I have a few ideas. I try not to pass things along until I'm confident that they're true.

There's certainly a lot left to be curious about, though. Just look at the statement the Justice Department gave us on Tuesday. They said the DEA "is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers."

EpicCliche1 karma

As an investigative journalist, how do you know when you're "finished" with a story? At what point is it ready to be seen?

Brad_Heath2 karma

It's finished when I'm confident that I've found something significant, and I'm confident that it's accurate. Then we have a bunch of really good editors and lawyers look at it again.

idunnowhatimdoingno0 karma

How do you you start investigating? Like how do you work out where to find information or even know there's going to be a story to write?

Brad_Heath2 karma

One of the most fun parts of my job is that I get to indulge my curiosity. DEA's disclosure of this program was remarkably spare; it seemed pretty obvious that there was more to the story. My editors gave me the time to dig into it a bit; when I found a little, they gave me the time to go find more. It doesn't always work out that way. I start looking at lots of things that never turn into stories.