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Former NSA director would support ending phone data collection program

The telephone data collection program run by the National Security Agency in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks — which was amended following its public disclosure by contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 — may no longer be "useful," the former head of the agency, retired Army Gen. Keith Alexander, said Friday.

Alexander, who led the NSA from 2005 to 2014 and became the first commander of U.S. Cyber Command upon its creation in 2009, spoke to reporters ahead of the Intelligence National Security Alliance's 35th Annual William Oliver Baker Award Dinner in Washington, where he was being honored.

"First, you can see that we've made changes to the program to where it's perhaps not useful, and we should step back," Alexander said. "Now, should we do away with it? I think that's where current people have to make a decision."

"Recall that that program was to connect the dots and give that to the FBI," he continued. "The current people are saying, 'Yes, but now we have to go through these sets of steps and these sets of steps and by the time we do it, it's not worth it.'"

Alexander was an outspoken defender of the bulk collection program in previous years, telling congressional committees in 2013 that it had prevented terror attacks in the U.S. and that shuttering it was "absolutely not the right thing to do." He later acknowledged that the program and the legal constraints on it had been poorly explained to the public and called for more transparency about the NSA's work.

The agency's bulk collection of call records — metadata that could reflect the time or duration of a call, for example, but not its contents — was first exposed by Snowden in 2013. His disclosures triggered a heated public debate over the government's domestic surveillance powers and led to legislation, passed in 2015, that changed how the agency was allowed to store and access telecommunications data. The USA Freedom Act required the NSA to make direct requests via a FISA court from telecommunications companies, rather than retaining call records in bulk.

The program's utility has recently been thrown into question, however. The NSA announced in July 2018 that it would purge the nearly 700 million records it had amassed since 2015 due to "technical irregularities" that resulted in the NSA being provided with some records it was not authorized to receive.

In March, a national security adviser to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a podcast interview with the website Lawfare that the agency had not used the program "for the past six months" and that it was unclear whether the administration would seek to preserve it. And according to an annual report on surveillance statistics issued in April by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the NSA gathered call records on just 11 targets in 2018, down from 40 in 2017.  

It will be the White House, not the NSA or FBI, that will determine whether to ask Congress to reauthorize relevant sections of the USA Freedom Act, which is set to expire in December.  

The NSA declined to comment. The National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an interview in March, current NSA Director and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command Gen. Paul Nakasone told CBS News the agency was in a "deliberative process" about the future of the program and would work "very, very closely with the administration and Congress on what authority should be reauthorized."

Two sources have since told CBS News that the NSA favors terminating the program. One said Nakasone has told lawmakers in private briefings that he wants to end the program because of its high logistical cost and low operational reward. The Wall Street Journal first reported the NSA's recommendation to drop the program.

In his remarks on Friday, Alexander expressed concerns about whether ending the program would inhibit the United States' ability to pursue terrorists, but said communication among intelligence and law enforcement agencies was "much better."

"I worry about terrorist attacks against us — especially in times of increased threat levels like we're seeing with Iran," he said. "But that call is a joint call, and ... so that's something the FBI and NSA director will take forward to the president and say, 'Here's what we think.'"

"They're good people. They'll make the right decisions. So if they decide they ought to do away with it, I'd support it," Alexander said.