NSA keeps five years’ worth of records covering nearly all telephone calls in the United States, showing which phone numbers were connected to which other numbers and when. Sen. Feinstein says the intelligence committee is considering proposals to change the programs, including providing the public with more data about how often phone numbers in the database are searched and reducing the length of time the government can keep the data to three years from the current five. “It’s been far too difficult to get a straight answer about the effectiveness” of the program, said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). “I think the patience of the American people is beginning to wear thin, but what has to be of more concern in a democracy is the trust of the American people is wearing thin.” The release of that information came after weeks of intense debate within the administration and the intelligence agencies that began when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed numerous documents about the agency’s activities. Some national security officials resisted declassifying the information, arguing that publicizing any aspect of the NSA’s work could potentially tip off terrorists about the methods the agency uses to track them. — Ken Dilanian







Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein at hearing on NSA surveillance                                            Sens. Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein lead a hearing on NSA surveillance programs.                                                (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press / July 31, 2013)


Set against that massive pile of data are restrictions designed to prevent abuses. The court order authorizes only a small number of analysts and supervisors at the NSA to access the database for the limited purpose of looking for numbers that were contacted by phone numbers linked to terrorism.

Only 22 people are authorized to work with the data, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, although agency technicians can also access the database for more limited purposes.

Fewer than 300 terrorist-linked numbers were used as the starting points for searches of the database in 2012, officials said. Based on the results of those searches, NSA provided 12 reports to the FBI, tipping agents to 500 suspicious U.S. numbers, NSA Deputy Director John “Chris” Inglis said at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.


Yet even as officials talked more openly than before about the program’s details, the disclosures came too late for many senators.

“We have a lot of good information out there that helps the American public understand these programs,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), “but it all came out late. It all came out in response to a leaker. There was no organized plan for how we rationally declassify this so that the American people can participate in the debate.”

Others remained unconvinced that the benefits of the database outweigh the costs to Americans’ privacy.

Asked during the hearing how many terrorism cases were cracked using U.S. phone records, Inglis said that a dozen domestic terrorism investigations had made use of the telephone records. But he could cite only one case that would not have been discovered but for the database: a group of men from San Diego who sent $8,500 to Al Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia.


Some judges who have sat on the court have suggested that the judges be given the authority to appoint a public advocate to argue against the government’s requests in some cases. Currently, only government lawyers appear before the court.






NSA Confirms Dragnet Phone Records Collection, But Admits It Was Key in Stopping Just 1 Terror Plot

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