NSA considered abandoning phone record collection

Five years ago, several National Security Agency (NSA) executives strongly objected to the agency’s program to collect American phone records, causing the agency to contemplate ending the practice, The Associated Press reported.

Public outrage over the program has exploded in the last year, after former government contractor Edward Snowden disclosed its existence.

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But before the public knew anything, several NSA officials argued the program — which records the time and duration of phone calls, as well as the phone numbers involved — had overstepped the agency’s authority.

They believed the NSA should focus on foreigners, not collect troves of data on Americans. Other executives saw the program as necessary to thwart foreign terrorist plots.

The internal squabble prompted the agency to briefly consider abandoning the program.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted not to proceed with a bill that would have required the NSA to cancel the program.

Former NSA Director Keith Alexander acknowledged the previously unreported dispute.

The agency explored whether it could achieve the same results by accessing phone records through the telephone companies, instead of collecting the records themselves.

The bill rejected Tuesday would have mandated the NSA go to the phone companies on an as-needed basis. However, the measure would not have required the phone companies to keep records for any length of time.

The concerned officials in 2009 wanted to ensure companies provided the phone records to the government in standardized formats for easy analysis.

The absence of that requirement was one of the sticking points in recent months as Congress considered whether to cancel the program.

In 2009, the NSA also rejected the executives' proposal, deciding to retain the existing program after consulting with the Justice Department, Congress and the White House.

The phone record collection program was the first of many U.S. spy programs exposed as the result of documents leaked by Snowden starting in mid-2013.

Debating the merits of those programs has since dominated much of the discussion on Capitol Hill.