Senators want answers on expiring NSA surveillance program

A group of senators are asking the National Security Agency for an update on the current status of its controversial bulk telephony metadata collection program.

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Six Senate Democrats want an update from the National Security Agency on a on the current status of a controversial surveillance program that is up for renewal in Congress later this year.

In a May 6 letter sent to NSA Director General Paul Nakasone, six Democratic senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee ask for "a public description, consistent with protection of sources and methods" of the current status regarding the Call Detail Record surveillance program.

The signatories include presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), as well as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is active on privacy and surveillance issues.

The program, first revealed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, involves the bulk collection of telephony metadata, or telephone call records, to support U.S. foreign intelligence and counterterrorism investigations. The NSA used the program to sweep up and store billions of domestic phone call and text records onto agency servers before legislative reforms in 2015 limited its scope and pushed the record-retention responsibilities to private telecommunication service providers.

Last year, the agency announced it had deleted over 685 million records related to the program dating back to 2015 after unspecified "technical irregularities" led to the overcollection of records that NSA wasn't authorized to receive. The agency hasn't publicly commented on the program since, and the senators wrote that an update is needed in order for Congress to determine whether the underlying legal authorities for the program should be renewed.

Recently, a congressional aide for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) revealed that the NSA had stopped using the program entirely and suggested the agency may not request its renewal, a sentiment that has been bolstered by subsequent media reports. However, critics in Congress have argued that doesn't go far enough and in March, 39 civil liberties and privacy groups wrote to House Judiciary Committee leaders advising that Congress end the program.

Internal watchdog shelves probe

The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General has quietly closed a years-long probe examining how the FBI used information collected through the program and passed on by the NSA.

Since 2015, the IG's semiannual reports on civil liberties complaints have listed an ongoing review to examine the FBI's "procedures for receiving, processing, and disseminating" leads the NSA develops from the program, how FBI field offices respond to those leads, the scope and type of information field offices collect as a result of any investigative activity initiated and the impact the program has played in FBI counterterrorism efforts.

However, the last two versions of the report released in September 2018 and March 2019 contain a passage saying the IG has discontinued its review "because of significant changes in the law under the USA Freedom Act, which effectively ended the government's bulk collection of telephony metadata [under FISA]."

The USA Freedom Act was passed in 2015, and it's not clear why the review was listed as ongoing for years after the law's passage, when it officially stopped or what it may have found. In response to questions about when the review was halted, the type of investigative activities auditors engaged in and whether the office planned to produce a report detailing its findings, Senior Counsel John Lavinksy, referred FCW back to the passage detailed in the semiannual report.

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