Spy agency once argued the collection of call metadata was vital to national security

The National Security Agency headquarters is seen in Maryland.

Source: Dustin Volz

 

WASHINGTON—The National Security Agency is considering ending a once-secret surveillance program that annually collects hundreds of millions of telephone call records, including those belonging to Americans, because it lacks operational value, according to people familiar with the matter.

Terminating the program, which was exposed publicly by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden nearly six years ago, would represent a stunning concession from a spy agency that once argued the collection of call metadata was vital to national security.

Luke Murray, a national security adviser for Republican congressional leadership, said in a recent podcast interview with the Lawfare security blog that the NSA hadn’t used the program in the past six months and might not seek its renewal when portions of the Patriot Act that authorize it expire at the end of the year.

The NSA declined to comment, and the National Security Council didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The people familiar with the NSA’s internal deliberations cautioned that no final decision had been made and that the discussions about potentially ending the metadata program were in the early and informal stages.

Metadata includes the numbers and timestamps of a call or text message but not the contents of the conversation.

Portions of the Patriot Act are due to expire at the end of 2019, including the section of the law that authorizes the metadata program. Congress is expected to extend the expiring provisions of the law, but debate isn’t expected to begin in earnest until the fall, according to congressional aides on relevant committees.

The NSA’s practice of vacuuming up telephone metadata in bulk was exposed in 2013 by Mr. Snowden, who leaked a trove of classified surveillance secrets to journalists.

Mr. Snowden has resided in Russia under asylum since the leaks after having his passport revoked by the U.S. government while traveling.

After nearly two years of debate fueled by Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in 2015, requiring the spy agency to replace its bulk metadata program with a pared-down system under which call records were retained by the telephone companies. The new measures have allowed the NSA to request those records on an as-needed basis rather than ingest them wholly into its own servers.

Privacy advocates have said the new system continues to pose troubling issues and that evidence of its value to national security is thin or nonexistent.

“It seems clear to me that this is not a program that is needed for national security,” said Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, in a recent interview. “One of the goals of the Freedom Act was to limit large-scale collection, and I think there are questions as to whether that law is achieving its goals.”

Any final decision about whether to end the program would be made by the White House, not the NSA. It is unclear if the Trump administration would be willing to relinquish an authority that the intelligence community has repeatedly argued was important to national security. But under scrutiny after the revelations of Mr. Snowden, intelligence officials struggled to demonstrate any examples when the program—in its old, more expansive form—had disrupted a terrorist plot.

Despite the rollback under the USA Freedom Act, the NSA reported collecting 151 million call records in 2016 related to 42 terrorism suspects and 534 million in 2017 connected to 40 suspects. The NSA has previously announced deleting some records collected under the program due to technical issues involving what data telecommunications firms shared with the spy agency.

Shutting down the metadata collection wouldn’t be the first time the NSA halted a controversial surveillance program. The agency announced in 2017 it would stop a form of signals collection that let it collect without a warrant the digital communications of Americans who mentioned a foreign intelligence target in messages to or from people living overseas.

That program, known as “about” collection, was frozen because of struggles to comport to privacy expectations laid out in 2011 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Write to Dustin Volz at dustin.volz@wsj.com

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