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Presidential Candidates Should Declare Their Stance on "Costly Failure of the NSA's Unconstitutional Mass Surveillance Program," Says Snowden

The whistleblower's call follows reporting by the New York Times showing the agency's sprawling photo data collection effort came with a $100 million pricetag and nearly no success.

Besides "massively invade our privacy, the U.S. National Security Agency's bulk collection of the phone numbers we called produced only one 'significant' investigation," said Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. (Image EFF Photos/flickr/cc)

Besides "massively invade our privacy, the U.S. National Security Agency's bulk collection of the phone numbers we called produced only one 'significant' investigation," said Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. (Image EFF Photos/flickr/cc)

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden said Tuesday that 2020 White House candidates should publicly declare their stance on the U.S. government's "unconstitutional mass surveillance program."

Snowden made the comments following a New York Times report showing the agency's sprawling photo data collection effort was hugely expensive and largely useless.

Charlie Savage's reporting on the program under the USA Freedom Act of 2015, which is set to expire March 15, showed the suspended call records program "cost $100 million from 2015 to 2019" and produced "a single significant investigation." The Times report cited a declassified, partly censored version of a report from the congressionally-created Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

The NSA shut down the program—initially exposed by Snowden in 2013 and then modified in 2015—last year.

As the Times reported,

With a judge's permission, the agency could query the system to swiftly obtain the records not only of a suspect, but of everyone with whom that suspect had been in contact.

The exponential math meant that the agency was still gathering a huge number of call and text records about Americans, however. In 2018, the agency obtained 14 court orders, but gathered 434 million call detail records involving 19 million phone numbers.

The reporting elicited swift reaction from privacy advocates.

"This notorious NSA spying program—which vacuumed up Americans' phone records by the billion—came at huge cost in terms of both dollars and privacy, but generated only two unique leads," said Patrick Toomey, staff attorney at the ACLU's National Security Project.

"Imagine what could have been done with $100 million," quipped Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, "other than massively invade our privacy, the US National Security Agency's bulk collection of the phone numbers we called produced only one 'significant' investigation."

"Yes, it's great that NSA finally acknowledges the Section 215 call records program was a massive waste of time and money," said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center. "But, there would be no pressure on them to fix it if not for Snowden. And the pointless invasions of American's privacy is staggering."

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the bottom line is clear: "It's time to end it."

House Democrats are weighing doing just that.

As The Hill reported Wednesday,  

House Democrats on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees unveiled legislation this week that would repeal the NSA's authority to run the program. That bill is scheduled to get a vote in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

As for Snowden's call to the presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) appears to be the only Democratic contender who's come out in opposition to the program, Sarah Lazare reported at In These Times Monday.

Lazare to referred to Sanders's tweet from Feb. 11 in which he said: "I voted against the Patriot Act in 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2015. I strongly oppose its reauthorization next month. I believe that in a democratic and constitutional form of government, we cannot sacrifice the civil liberties that make us a free country."

The leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) in November gave a three-month extension to three surveillance provisions, Lazare noted.

"By coming out now against the mass surveillance powers," she wrote, "Sanders appears to be signaling to the CPC that it should find its backbone on this issue. And those who stay silent are implicitly encouraging the opposite."

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