An Associated Press exclusive today notes that the National Security Agency (NSA) knew full well that its mass telephone metadata collection program was actually contributing very little to the war on terror. And in fact, prior to Edward Snowden leaking the existing of this program—as well as many others—there was an internal push to end it. The effort probably wouldn't have succeeded, the Associated Press says, but it's definitely important information given the consistent defense of sweeping up the call metadata of millions upon millions of people (which is still going on, by the way). From the AP:
The internal critics pointed out that the already high costs of vacuuming up and storing the "to and from" information from nearly every domestic landline call were rising, the system was not capturing most cellphone calls, and the program was not central to unraveling terrorist plots, the officials said. They worried about public outrage if the program ever was revealed.
After the program was disclosed, civil liberties advocates attacked it, saying the records could give a secret intelligence agency a road map to Americans' private activities. NSA officials presented a forceful rebuttal that helped shape public opinion.
Responding to widespread criticism, President Barack Obama in January 2014 proposed that the NSA stop collecting the records, but instead request them when needed in terrorism investigations from telephone companies, which tend to keep them for 18 months.
Yet the president has insisted that legislation is required to adopt his proposal, and Congress has not acted. So the NSA continues to collect and store records of private U.S. phone calls for use in terrorism investigations under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Many lawmakers want the program to continue as is.
The Associated Press noted that there is a precedent for the NSA stopping mass data collection programs. They had also been mass-collecting metadata about e-mail but suspended the practice years before Snowden actually leaked the program's existence. That program ended up being a big mess at the NSA because they could not figure out technology that collected metadata (to and from information, et cetera) about e-mail that did not also provide actual e-mail content. They could not stop collecting inappropriate information from emails, no matter how much they promised the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that they would.
Also of note, the internal NSA critics of the metadata collection point out that it hasn't been helpful in fighting terrorism. But as we also know by now, though defenders of these metadata searches my attempt to scare us with spectres of terrorists, the NSA (along with other federal agencies) are interested in using this data in perpetuating the drug war and in matters that having nothing to do with terrorism. So even the NSA acknowledging it doesn't fight terrorism isn't enough to kill it.