Lawmakers Demand Details on NSA’s Sweeping Phone Surveillance Operations

Protesters rally against mass surveillance during an event organized by the group Stop Watching Us in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26, 2013.

Protesters rally against mass surveillance during an event organized by the group Stop Watching Us in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26, 2013. Rena Schild/Shutterstock.com

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The Call Detail Record program, which scoops up the phone records of millions of Americans, is set to expire at the end of 2019.

A group of lawmakers is demanding the National Security Agency disclose more details on its sweeping phone surveillance operations to the public.

Six Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday called on NSA to release a public report outlining the current state of the Call Detail Record program. Under the program, the agency gathers phone records on millions of people in the U.S. and around the world.

Last year, NSA announced it started deleting records collected under the program prior to 2015 because of technical challenges with handling and storing the data. Since then, lawmakers said, officials have not issued any updates on the program.

“A public status report will resolve the current confusion, demonstrate the NSA’s commitment to transparency, and inform Congress’s deliberations about the possible reauthorization of the program later this year,” Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Warner, D-Va., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Michael Bennet, D.Colo., said in a letter to NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone.

Nakasone has yet to respond to the inquiry, multiple congressional spokespeople told Nextgov.

The agency’s bulk data collection operations have come under intense scrutiny since former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden first brought them to light in 2013.

Congress passed legislation in 2015 requiring the agency to scale back the program from blanket data collection to more limited surveillance based on judicial approval. Still, its scope remains significant: NSA collected records on more than 434 million phone calls and text messages in 2018, and 534 million communications the year before.

With the program set to expire in December, lawmakers must soon decide whether to reauthorize the operations. At this point, the odds appear low.

Warner, the intelligence committee’s ranking member, said he’s open to hearing from intelligence chiefs on why the program should be maintained, but despite his outreach, they have yet to make that case.

“I imagine it’s going to be a tough case for the Administration to make when they cannot seem to get their act together to even ask for an extension,” Warner said.

Other lawmakers have been less willing to compromise. Wyden has frequently spoken out against the agency’s surveillance operations, and recently introduced legislation that would shut down the Call Detail Record program for good.

In April, the Wall Street Journal reported NSA officials had asked the White House to abandon the program altogether, claiming its logistical and legal challenges outweighed its potential benefits. Last week, however, multiple administration officials told the Washington Post they were considering calling on Congress to permanently renew the program.