SurveillanceNSA to destroy millions of American call records collected under controversial program

Published 28 July 2015

The director of national intelligence said on Monday that the NSA would no longer examine call records collected by the NSA in its controversial bulk collection program before the June reauthorization of the Patriot Act which prohibits such collection. Bulk records are typically kept for five years, but the director said that although the records in the NSA database were collected lawfully, they would not be examined, and would soon be destroyed.

The Obama administration has announced that the NSA will soon stop examining, and soon will begin to destroy, calling records of millions of Americans the agency collected under a 2006 rule which expanded the agency’s surveillance powers, and which was revealed by Edward Snowden.

In June Congress passed a reauthorization of the Patriot Act – but ended the NSA’s bulk collection of American calling records. Congress gave the agency six months to phase out the program and stop collecting new calling record, but the agency officials said at the time that they had not yet decided what to do with the records already collected before the revised law was passed. The NSA typically keeps such records for five years.

The New York Times notes that intelligence agencies typically want, for as long as possible, to keep records which were lawfully obtained.

The reauthorized law which ended the bulk collection of phone records of Americans instead allows the NSA to request the records from phone companies if these records are needed in terrorism investigations. The law, however, did not say what should be done with the records already in the NSA system. On Monday, the director of national intelligence said that those records would no longer be examined in terrorism investigations after 29 November, and would be destroyed as soon as possible.

The director noted that records cannot be purged right away because the NSA is being sued over them.

In documents submitted to Congress, the NSA said it queries the database of collected calls around 300 times a year, searching for calls made by and to numbers suspected of being linked to terrorism.

There question of the effectiveness of bulk collection in the war on terror has been hotly debated, with knowledgeable people both inside and outside the intelligence community found among supporters and critics of the program.

The Guardian notes that this debate notwithstanding, in the event of an attack, the records currently being stored would allow the NSA and the FBI quickly to map connections going back several years. Without the database, that task will be harder because the records will have to be obtained.

“There’s a potential reduction in capability that they are accepting under pressure,” said Steven Aftergood, who writes about intelligence and secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, told the Guardian. “Whatever intelligence and analytical value might reside in this data will be eliminated. It’s a political choice that they are making, and it shows that at the end of the day they are a law-abiding organization. They are not putting their intelligence interests above external control.”