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Report: The NSA's Expensive and Controversial Phone Program Only Netted One Significant Investigation

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Around this time last year, the National Security Agency stealthily shut down its disputed mass surveillance program that tracked Americans’ domestic calls and texts. Well, now it would appear that between 2015 to 2019, that program cost $100 million but only resulted in one significant investigation and two unique leads, the New York Times reports.

The information comes courtesy of a recently declassified study by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and was presented to Congress today. Regarding the two leads, one involved the FBI vetting an individual and then deciding that no further action was needed. The second lead involved the discovery of information pertaining to a telephone number that then led to a foreign intelligence investigation. The report did not, however, disclose what the single “significant investigation” was about, nor did it provide any information about the results.


In total, the Times notes that the Freedom Act iteration of the program resulted in 15 intelligence reports for the NSA. However, 13 of those reports contained information that the FBI had already obtained through other means. In two investigations, the NSA produced reports using information from the program relating to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting and an attack at Ohio State University, also in 2016. However, it was unclear whether either investigation was related to the two aforementioned unique leads produced by the program.

Given the high cost and minimal returns, it’s easy to see why the NSA opted to shutter the program last year. When the news broke, both the Times and the Wall Street Journal reported that the program had not been used for at least a six-month period. Part of that is likely due to phone calls losing relevance as more people use encrypted texting apps. That said, the program also had recurring technical difficulties that resulted in the agency purging millions of records it had inappropriately obtained.


The report also comes at a time where the future of such surveillance programs is uncertain. Currently, Congress is mulling whether to let the U.S.A. Freedom Act of 2015—essentially a revised version of the Patriot Act that put greater restrictions on who the NSA could collect metadata from—expire on March 15. Before the act, the controversial program resulted in the NSA collecting billions of phone and text records per day. (This version of the program is the one Edward Snowden publicly came forward about in 2013.) Even so, after the U.S.A. Freedom Act, the NSA still collected over 500 million U.S. call records in 2017 from just 40 targets. In 2018, the NSA collected 434 million call records from 19 million phone numbers.

Despite the abysmal numbers, the Trump administration has requested that Congress reauthorize the Freedom Act. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee is set to debate a bill this week that would nix the NSA’s ability to collect call data on a large scale—effectively putting an end to any possibility the NSA’s program could ever be reinstated.