In recent weeks, political support for such broad collection has sagged, and the House last week narrowly defeated a bipartisan bid to end the program, at least in its current form. On Wednesday, senior Democratic senators voiced equally strong doubts.
“This bulk-collection program has massive privacy implications,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.). “The phone records of all of us in this room — all of us in this room — reside in an NSA database. I’ve said repeatedly, just because we have the ability to collect huge amounts of data does not mean that we should be doing so. . . . If this program is not effective, it has to end. So far, I’m not convinced by what I’ve seen.”
Administration officials defended the collection effort and a separate program targeting foreigners’ communication as essential and operating under stringent guidelines.
“With these programs and other intelligence activities, we are constantly seeking to achieve the right balance between the protection of national security and the protection of privacy and civil liberties,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said. “We believe these two programs have achieved the right balance.”
Cole nonetheless said the administration is open to amending the program to achieve greater public trust. Legislation is pending in the Senate that would narrow its scope.
The NSA program collecting phone records began after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and was brought under the supervision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2006. But its existence remained hidden until June, when the Guardian newspaper in Britain published a classified FISC order to a U.S. phone company to turn over to the NSA all call records. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked the order to the newspaper.
On Wednesday, the Guardian published new documents provided by Snowden that outlined previously unknown features of an NSA data-retrieval system called XKeyscore. The newspaper reported that the search tool allowed analysts to “search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.”
NSA slides describing the system published with the Guardian article indicated that analysts used it to sift through government databases, including Pinwale, the NSA’s primary storage system for e-mail and other text, and Marina, the primary storage and analysis tool for “metadata.” Another slide described analysts using XKeyscore to access a database containing phone numbers, e-mail addresses, log-ins and Internet user activity generated from other NSA programs.