The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has reportedly halted a widely criticized domestic mass surveillance program involving Americans' phone records first exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The revelation came from Luke Murry, the national security adviser to the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), on The Lawfare Podcast. His remarks were picked up the the New York Times and quickly spark national attention.
The now-shuttered program that analyzed metadata from phone records—which shows who called or texted whom, and when, but not what is said—replaced a once-secret operation established under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which Snowden, an ex-intelligence contractor, exposed in 2013.
Murry said that under the Trump administration, the agency "actually hasn't been using it for the past six months because of problems with way in which that information was collected." He added, "I'm not actually certain that the administration will want to start that back up given where they've been six months."
Technical problems with data collection, acknowledged by NSA last summer, forced the agency to purge hundreds of millions of phone and text metadata records collected from American telecommunications companies over three years after realizing that its database included files the NSA was not authorized to receive.
Murry's revelation, as the Times noted, comes at an important moment in the fight for privacy:
Congress ended and replaced the program disclosed by Mr. Snowden with the USA Freedom Act of 2015, which will expire in December. Security and privacy advocates have been gearing up for a legislative battle over whether to extend or revise the program—and with what changes, if any.
Daniel Schuman, policy director of the advocacy group Demand Progress, told the Times Murry's disclosure that the program hasn't been used for months "changes the entire landscape of the debate," especially since "the sky hasn't fallen" in its absence.
As he put it: "If there is an ongoing program, even if we all have doubts about it, that's a very different political matter than if the program has actually stopped... Then the question becomes, 'Why restart it?' rather than whether to turn it off."
There cannot be any doubt -- it's time for the government's metadata surveillance program, section 215, to sunset. https://t.co/Zj3baN8h7r
— Demand Progress (@demandprogress) March 5, 2019
The NSA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security Council are remaining tight-lipped about future plans for the program. McCarthy's spokesperson, meanwhile, said that Murry "was not speaking on behalf of administration policy or what Congress intends to do on this issue."
Murry's prediction that the Trump administration won't push for Congress to renew the spying program was cautiously welcomed by privacy advocates. "It's time for this mass surveillance program to end permanently," tweeted the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Breaking: According to @NYTimes, the government’s program of collecting hundreds of millions of telephone records using Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act has been shut down—at least temporarily. It's time for this mass surveillance program to end permanently.https://t.co/qMH5BHi9SB
— EFF (@EFF) March 5, 2019
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) concurred:
If this is indeed true, the NSA shouldn’t restart the program — it’s never been an effective counterterrorism tool and has violated the privacy of countless people.
Congress should end this program and programs like it once and for all. https://t.co/l5apT0jl25
— ACLU (@ACLU) March 5, 2019
The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald was one of the first journalists to work with Snowden to expose the U.S. government's mass spying efforts that began under former President George W. Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and continued under former President Barack Obama. In a Twitter thread late Monday, Greenwald pointed out that Obama and his Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had claimed the program was essential to national security.
Given that the program reportedly hasn't thwarted any terrorist attacks and the Trump administration has operated without it for the past six months, he called the situation a "good reminder of how governments lie."
Despite claims of Obama officials that our reporting jeopardized lives, the NYT says "the phone records program had never thwarted a terrorist attack" and, now, "'the sky hasn’t fallen' without the program operating" - good reminder of how governments lie https://t.co/H91zvOcVMk
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) March 5, 2019
Greenwald, who is also an attorney, further reiterated that "the mass collection of Americans' communications records—done in secrecy, with no democratic or Congressional approval—was a grave violation of the Constitution."
Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of new @ACLU supporters think of that group as some sort of liberal anti-Trump organization. But they spent years repeatedly suing Obama's executive power, assassination & spying excesses, and defending @Snowden https://t.co/j1C4UFINxT
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) March 5, 2019