Government watchdog pressed to investigate NSA call record deletion

Government watchdog pressed to investigate NSA call record deletion
© Greg Nash

A pair of U.S. senators is asking the National Security Agency’s inspector general to investigate the circumstances surrounding the spy agency’s decision to delete scores of call records that it collected for foreign intelligence purposes. 

The NSA announced in late June that it was deleting all so-called call detail records (CDRs) collected since 2015 after discovering that “technical irregularities” resulted in the agency collecting data it was not authorized to receive. 

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The NSA said it publicly disclosed the developments in accordance with the agency’s “core values of respect for the law, accountability, integrity, and transparency.” While the spy agency said the root of the problem has been addressed, it offered limited details about the issue.

Now, Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOn unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 Congress must step up to protect Medicare home health care Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration MORE (R-Ky.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Kremlin seeks more control over Russian internet | Huawei CEO denies links to Chinese government | Facebook accused of exposing health data | Harris calls for paper ballots | Twitter updates ad rules ahead of EU election Kremlin seeks more control over internet in Russia Wisconsin governor to propose decriminalization of marijuana MORE (D-Ore.) are asking Robert Storch, the NSA inspector general, to launch an investigation into “the circumstances surrounding, and any systemic problems that may have led to, the deletion by the National Security Agency (NSA) of certain call detail records,” according to a letter sent Thursday.

The senators also asked the inspector general to, if possible, issue an unclassified report about his findings. 

The NSA collects call detail records from telecommunications providers through court orders as part of its foreign intelligence efforts. The records contain the numbers involved in and time and duration of phone calls, but not the content of phone calls themselves. 

On June 28, the NSA revealed that it began deleting all call detail records collected since 2015 because “NSA analysts noted technical irregularities in some data received from telecommunications service providers.” 

“The root cause of the problem has since been addressed for future CDR acquisitions, and NSA has reviewed and revalidated its intelligence reporting to ensure that the reports were based on properly received CDRs,” the NSA said at the time.

Paul and Wyden wrote in their request that they want the inspector general to probe the extent to which court orders that the NSA obtains from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “provide sufficient direction” to telecommunications firms so they provide only call records that the NSA is authorized to receive. 

They also requested the watchdog investigate whether all unauthorized production was, in fact, deleted internally by the NSA. 

The senators also want to know whether the spy agency has “adequately ensured, not only that the same unauthorized production will not reoccur, but also that systems are in place to prevent other technical irregularities from resulting in unauthorized production.” 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE called the NSA's handling of the call records a "disgrace" in July, suggesting that the spy agency may be guilty of "privacy violations."

The NSA’s foreign intelligence efforts have been under scrutiny since the 2013 Edward Snowden disclosures, which eventually led Congress to pass legislation reigning in the spy agency’s programs.

The intelligence community said earlier this year that the NSA collected a record 534 million U.S. call detail records in 2017 — more than three times the figure for 2016 — a development that raised questions among civil liberties advocates.

The records are collected under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that poised to expire at the end of 2019.

Paul and Wyden pressed the inspector general to complete the investigation “well in advance” of that deadline, so that Congress can consider the findings when debating whether to renew or change it. 

“We further request that, to the extent possible, your report on this investigation be unclassified so that it can inform a public debate concerning that reauthorization,” they wrote.