NSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show

NSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show
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The National Security Agency (NSA) improperly collected records on American phone calls and texts last year, according to new documents obtained and released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The error occurred between Oct. 3 and Oct. 12, the documents show, and had not been previously disclosed. The documents were obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request.

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The incident occurred four months after the NSA said it had deleted scores U.S. records that were collected since 2015 due to a separate error. The records contained details on the duration of U.S. phone calls but not the content of them.

The ACLU records show the agency also used improperly obtained information in February 2018, which likely led to the NSA's decision to purge millions of records a few months later in June. The agency allegedly used some of that improperly collected data to seek approval to spy on some targets, but the records do not indicate whether that information was ultimately used for those purposes.

The new disclosures come as part of the ACLU's ongoing lawsuit against the NSA over the call records program, which gathers metadata on domestic text messages and phone calls.

"The technical irregularities that led NSA to delete data last summer were identified and addressed," an NSA spokesman told The Hill in a statement Wednesday. "Since that time, NSA identified additional data integrity and compliance concerns caused by the unique complexities of using company-generated business records for intelligence purposes. Those data integrity and compliance concerns have also been addressed and reported to NSA’s overseers, including the congressional oversight committees and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."

The spokesman said the agency cannot comment further "on these concerns because they involve operational details of the program that remain classified." 

The ACLU is using the new documents to underscore its argument that the call records program should not be allowed to exist.

"These documents further confirm that this surveillance program is beyond redemption and a privacy and civil liberties disaster," Patrick ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, said in a statement. "The NSA's collection of Americans' call records is too sweeping, the compliance problems too many, and the evidence of the program's value all but nonexistence. There is no justification for leaving this surveillance power in the NSA's hands."

The ACLU, responding to the records, sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday calling for an end to the authority that enables the call records program, referred to as Section 215.

Privacy activists have long argued that elements of the  USA Freedom Act — which enables the call detail records program — should not be reauthorized, including the Section 215 authorities. They say the program has not effectively stopped any terrorist attacks and encroaches on the personal lives of Americans.

The USA Freedom Act, a pared-down version of the 2001 Patriot Act, is up for reauthorization at the end of this year. Civil liberties activists have been fighting for Congress to let the Section 215 authorities to expire. 

But some lawmakers have said they need to hear from the NSA and the White House before making a final decision.

As far as the status of the program, the NSA spokesperson said in Wednesday's statement, "This is a deliberative interagency process that will be decided by the Administration."

A top national security aide to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in a podcast earlier this year revealed that, for the past six months, the NSA hasn't used the program and predicted that the Trump administration would not ask to renew it.

A group of bipartisan lawmakers last month introduced a bill that would end the program take away the NSA's authority to restart it.

Updated at 10:11 a.m.