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Lawmakers make bipartisan push to end NSA's mass telephone data collection program

NSA director discusses phone metadata program

A bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday to put an end the National Security Agency's U.S. phone data and text message collection program.  

Senators Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, alongside Reps. Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan, and Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California, said the measure was intended to defend U.S. citizens against needless privacy incursions and government overreach. All are known to be civil libertarians.

"The NSA's sprawling phone records dragnet was born in secrecy, defended with lies and never stopped a single terrorist attack," Wyden said. "It's time, finally, to put a stake in the heart of this unnecessary government surveillance program and start to restore some of Americans' liberties."

The NSA declined to comment.

The collection program, first implemented in the aftermath of 9/11, allowed the NSA to collect details, known as metadata, about which phone numbers had been connected and when. However, call content was not collected or monitored. In 2013, the program was exposed by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, whose disclosures triggered a heated public debate over the government's surveillance powers.

The 2015 USA Freedom Act (UFA), passed by Congress in Snowden's aftermath, changed how the NSA was allowed to store and access telecommunications data. Rather than collecting and storing data itself, the agency was required to make direct requests, via a FISA court, from telecommunications companies.

But the utility and functionality of that process first came under scrutiny last July, when, in its own disclosure, the NSA said it was deleting all of the call detail records it had amassed since 2015 due to "technical irregularities" in some of the data it had received from telephone companies. That amounted, according to a public report about the agency's surveillance activities, to about 685 million records.

At the time, the agency declined to comment on whether any national security leads had been compromised by the deletion of the data.

An agency spokesperson told CBS News in July that the NSA had "considered the potential risk to national security in selecting this course of action," and that it had "a number of means of verifying the information – including looking at data that was not from UFA to ensure that the intelligence reporting is and remains accurate."

The spokesperson declined to say how the NSA intended to ensure that over-collection did not reoccur.

In a recent podcast interview, an aide to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the NSA had not been using the program "for the past six months" – prompting further questions about its value, once staunchly defended by national security officials.  

Earlier this month, NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone told CBS News in an interview that the agency was in a "deliberative process" about the future of the program.

"We'll work very, very closely with the administration and Congress to make recommendations on what authority should be reauthorized," Nakasone said.

He declined to make any sort of public appeal to lawmakers. "I think it'll probably be better for me to answer the next question," he said.

The relevant provisions of the USA Freedom Act expire on December 15.  The White House has not yet signaled whether it will push for a full reauthorization of the law.

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