NSA Considered Dropping Phone Records Program Years Before Snowden Leak

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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Four years before Edward Snowden leaked the largest cache of classified documents in U.S. government history — exposing the most sweeping surveillance of Americans in history — some officials at the National Security Agency protested its most-shocking program, and warned of the fallout that would result were it ever to face the light of day.

Shortly after the Obama administration took the reigns of the newly expanded surveillance state — including a program sweeping up nearly all landline telephone records in the country — an official at NSA spearheaded a push to do away with what has since been called “the 215 program,” which finds its legal underpinning in the USA PATRIOT Act. (RELATED: This Legal Loophole Could Let NSA Spy On Americans Long After The Patriot Act Expires)

According to the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, some NSA officials argued the agency had grossly overstepped its bounds with the 215 program, and that it served little intelligence value compared to the damage its revelation could do in the general public. They argued the program was leading the signals intelligence agency away from its core mission of intercepting foreign communications, not those of American citizens.

The official voiced his concerns to then-NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, who “politely disagreed,” arguing along with others that the program was necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.

Alexander, who retired from the agency earlier this year, confirmed the official’s account.

“An individual did bring us these questions, and he had some great points,” Alexander said in the report. “I asked the technical folks, including him, to look at it.”

The internal disagreement eventually led officials to consider changing the program to take records out of the hands of the agency and into those of telephone service providers themselves — discussions that made rounds in the Justice Department, Congress and the White House. All rejected the proposal — which would have required changing the law — in 2009 and again in 2011, with lawmakers declining to alter a law neither the public nor the majority of Congress realized was being used to conduct bulk surveillance.

Moving the records was one of the chief components of a bill to reform NSA surveillance powers that was defeated in the Senate earlier this week. (RELATED: Senate Sinks NSA Reform)

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Giuseppe Macri