Report: Before Snowden Leaks, NSA Nearly Axed Phone Data Collection Program

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NSA officials considered shutting down a controversial phone collection program months before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on its existence. ( photo)
NSA officials considered shutting down a controversial phone collection program months before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on its existence. ( photo)

The National Security Agency (NSA) came close to shutting down a controversial phone metadata collection initiative months before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the once-secret program, according to a report by The Associated Press.

The AP, quoting unnamed “current and former intelligence officials,” said the agency had debated internally the merits of the program on the basis of cost, considering whether the millions of dollars invested into the program yielded enough results to justify continuation.

Some officials, the AP said, felt that the program was sucking up too much information on phone calls, and not enough at the same time. While every landline phone call was being collected and stored in an internal NSA database for review by analysts, cellphone calls were slipping through the cracks.

Even so, the program was not effective in tracking down and apprehending terrorists, nor was the program central to disrupting terrorist plots, intelligence officials said. Others said they were worried that, if exposed, the program would prove highly unpopular with the American public, the AP reported.

The debate has yet to reach the top intelligence official, then-NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, before news reports based on documents leaked by Snowden exposed that program and others. Two officials told the AP that, even if a proposal had reached Alexander’s desk, the country’s top spy boss would almost certainly have rejected it.

The program was first exposed in an article by Glenn Greenwald in June 2013. A few days later, Snowden came forward in a video interview conducted by Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Snowden has since been living in Russia under temporary political asylum.

Read more: TheBlot Magazine’s Edward Snowden Archive

The new disclosure about the internal debate at the NSA over the phone collection program could play a central role in a different debate due to happen on the floor of Congress. The phone collection program is set to expire in June, and Congress will soon be tasked with determining whether the program should continue as is, be modified or shut down entirely.

Civil liberties groups, who attacked the program when it was exposed, are hoping for the latter. Most privacy advocates argue the phone collection program is unconstitutional and plays an insignificant role in foiling terrorist plots.

A report by a White House committee released in January 2014 echoed some of these concerns, finding that the bulk phone record collection program was “not essential” and “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.”

Supporters of the program argue otherwise, saying the programs are needed “to connect the dots” between terrorists and their plans. Often, supporters of the bulk phone data collection and other surveillance initiatives invoke the Sept. 11 terrorist attack as justification for continuing the dragnet spy programs.

“We cannot go back to a pre-(September 11) moment,” Alexander said before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in December 2013. “Taking these programs off the table is not the thing to do.”

Alexander and others have argued the programs come with checks and balances to ensure that the programs are used exclusively for homeland security purposes. Often they point to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which — according to documents released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — has continued to approve the bulk phone data collection program despite occasionally finding the NSA at fault for not adhering to the law.

Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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