Dem senators ask NSA for public update on mass phone data collection program

Dem senators ask NSA for public update on mass phone data collection program
© Stefani Reynolds

A group of six Democratic senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee is asking the National Security Agency (NSA) to release a public update on its mass phone data collection program, following reports indicating the spy agency has shut it down. 

"We write to urge that you provide a public description, consistent with protection of sources and methods, of the current status of the call detail record (CDR) program," the senators wrote in a letter to Paul Nakasone, head of the NSA.

The group of senators includes the Intelligence Committee's vice chairman, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerMini-exodus of Trump officials from Commerce to lobby on semiconductors Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding Virginia governor, senators request CDC aid with coronavirus outbreak at immigrant detention facility MORE (D-Va.), Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal On The Money: Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock | Meadows, Pelosi trade criticism on stalled stimulus talks | Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock MORE (D-Ore.), a privacy hawk, and 2020 contenders Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence Crump, attorney for George Floyd's family, endorses Harris for Biden VP pick Davis: My recommendation for vice president on Biden ticket MORE (D-Calif.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetHow Congress is preventing a Medicare bankruptcy during COVID-19 Tom Cotton rips NY Times for Chinese scientist op-ed criticizing US coronavirus response Our national forests need protection — and Congress can help MORE (D-Colo.), among others.

The Wall Street Journal last month reported that the NSA was recommending the White House officially end the agency's mass collection of U.S. phone data.

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Sources told the Journal that the NSA has concluded that the program, which gathered metadata on domestic text messages and phone calls, was too burdensome to maintain. 

The last time the NSA weighed in publicly about the program was when it announced last year that it had purged hundreds of millions of records after discovering the data had been “contaminated” by records it was not supposed to receive. 

"Since then, there have been no public updates from NSA," the senators wrote. "A public status report will resolve the current confusion, demonstrate the NSA’s commitment to transparency, and inform Congress’s deliberations about the possible reauthorization of the program later this year." 

The NSA in an email to The Hill confirmed it had received the letter.

"NSA has received the letter, is in the process of reviewing it and will respond accordingly," an agency spokesperson said.

The White House will ultimately decide whether to push for legislation to renew the program's legal authority. 

Senators appear to be split on the issue, with Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag Hillicon Valley: Google extending remote work policy through July 2021 | Intel community returns final Russia report to Senate committee after declassification | Study finds election officials vulnerable to cyberattacks Intel community returns final Russia report volume to Senate after declassification review MORE (R-N.C.), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, signaling that he wants to renew the program's authority, while Warner has expressed skepticism. 

Privacy hawks in Congress and civil liberties advocates had been gearing up for a battle on Capitol Hill over the reauthorization of the program, but reports have for months indicated that the NSA is shuttering the program amid technical difficulties. 

The call records program was first revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden six years ago. Following Snowden's disclosures, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in 2015, which created a pared-down version of the phone surveillance program. 

Experts have said the restrictions placed on the program in that act might have rendered it inoperable. 

 

--This report was updated on May 8 at 1:12 p.m.