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 WarnerHillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day Microsoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate Google sparks new privacy fears over health care data MORE (D-Va.), Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocratic senators introduce bill to block funding for border wall live stream Booker, Sanders propose new federal agency to control drug prices Hillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant MORE (D-Ore.), a privacy hawk, and 2020 contenders Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Harris gets key union endorsement amid polling plateau MORE (D-Calif.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting Biden, Buttigieg condemn rocket attacks on Israel 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 BurrGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy North Carolina poised to pass new congressional maps Saagar Enjeti claims Pelosi's impeachment strategy could hurt 2020 Democrats 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.