The National Security Agency (NSA) has reportedly stopped using a tool to access and analyze Americans' phone records and recommended an end to the practice. But the White House is now considering mounting a defense of the authority in the face of the NSA's policy change.
That's the latest news from Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post, collected through anonymous sources in President Donald Trump's administration.
Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act authorizes some secret NSA surveillance and access of people's personal records held by third parties through the authorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts. Edward Snowden exposed six years ago that the NSA was using this authority to collect millions of American phone records in their attempts to root out terrorism.
The unwarranted violation of our privacy caused outrage and calls for reform. Section 215 was modified by the USA Freedom Act, which allowed phone records access to continue in a more controlled and monitored fashion. Under these new rules, the NSA was forced to acknowledge that it was not entitled to millions of the records it had collected. It purged those records and then quietly stopped the collection process entirely.
In April, the Wall Street Journal reported that NSA officials decided they would recommend that the government allow its authority to access these records to end. But according to Nakashima, White House officials are preparing not only to push for Section 215 renewal, but also for the authority to be made permanent.
The Washington Post notes that the full expiration of that section of the PATRIOT Act could affect more than just phone record collection:
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress expanded the law to enable agencies investigating suspected espionage and terrorism to request court permission to gather data not just from a narrow set of businesses — such as hotels, warehouses and car rental agencies — but also from any third party. And they could seek data related not just to "agents of a foreign power" but also to anyone whose information would be "relevant" to an ongoing investigation.
Allowing the law to lapse would "reset the clock back to 1998 and gut much more than the phone data aspect," said Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "It would set the general document collection power back to a highly narrow authority limited to a handful of industries."
Keep in mind that the federal government has all sorts of ways to engage in secret unwarranted surveillance of citizens. This authorization is only about the secret collection of records held by third parties. Resist the idea that turning back the clock here would necessarily render us vulnerable. The Post notes that under Section 215 the NSA has collected hundreds of millions of phone records for information about a handful of suspects. Last year, before the program was suspended, they had collected more than 400 million records even though they had only 11 terrorism targets.
This domestic snooping violates our privacy and has not made us safer. The White House should consider letting it go.