The National Security Agency is reportedly on the verge of abandoning a surveillance program that monitored the metadata of U.S. phone calls and text messages.
The NSA has recommended to the White House that it should abandon the program, people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal. The agency said that the “logistical and legal burdens” of the surveillance outweigh any intelligence benefits.
Specifically, the surveillance program involved collecting the metadata — including phone numbers, time stamps and duration — of all domestic calls made in the U.S. The goal is to search for links between associates of known terrorism suspects, but it’s worth noting that the program never had access to the contents of calls.
But the publication notes that there has been a “growing belief” among senior intelligence officials that the program provides limited value to national security. More than that, sources say that the program has become a “logistical headache.”
The existence of the program was first revealed when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked its existence about six years ago — along with information of a myriad other government surveillance operations.
In 2015, in the wake of the Snowden leaks, legislators passed the USA Freedom Act. That forced the NSA to replace its existing bulk metadata collection program with a simpler version in which call records were retained by telephone companies. Under the new program, only the metadata of specific targets and some of their close associates are given to the spy agency.
The WSJ points out that it’s this change that has largely caused the program to be viewed as more of a headache than an asset, likely because the new system has reportedly run into “compliance issues.”
This week’s recommendation comes about a month after previous reports suggesting that the NSA was seriously considering ending the program. At that time, the WSJ reported that the talks were still in their early stages.
The recommendation to stop the surveillance comes ahead of a December 2019 deadline in which officials must decide whether to renew the legislative authority that makes it legal or let it expire.
On the other hand, it’s not up to the NSA whether to continue or abandon the program. That decision will be left up to the White House. Sources say that the Trump administration hasn’t yet reached a decision about the program.