WASHINGTON — The Drug Enforcement Administration secretly collected data in bulk about Americans’ purchases of money-counting machines — and took steps to hide the effort from defendants and courts — before quietly shuttering the program in 2013 amid the uproar over the disclosures by the National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, an inspector general report found.
Seeking leads about who might be a drug trafficker, the D.E.A. started in 2008 to issue blanket administrative subpoenas to vendors to learn who was buying money counters. The subpoenas involved no court oversight and were not pegged to any particular investigation. The agency collected tens of thousands of records showing the names and addresses of people who bought the devices.
The public version of the report, which portrayed the program as legally questionable, blacked out the device whose purchase the D.E.A. had tracked. But in a slip-up, the report contained one uncensored reference in a section about how D.E.A. policy called for withholding from official case files the fact that agents first learned the names of suspects from its database of its money-counter purchases.
That instruction, it said, “was intended to protect the program’s sources and methods; criminals would obtain money counters by other means if they knew that the D.E.A. collected this data.”