Section 215, the controversial law at the heart of the NSA’s massive telephone records surveillance program, is set to expire in December. Last week the House Committee on the Judiciary held an oversight hearing to investigate how the NSA, FBI, and the rest of the intelligence community are using and interpreting 215 and other expiring national security authorities.
Congress last looked at these laws in 2015 when it passed the USA FREEDOM Act, which sought to end bulk surveillance and to bring much-needed transparency to intelligence agency activities. However, NSA itself has revealed that it has been unable to stay within the limits USA FREEDOM put on Section 215’s “Call Detail Records” (CDR) authority. In response to these revelations, we’ve been calling for an end to the Call Details Records program, as well as additional transparency into the government’s use of Section 215. If last week’s hearing made anything clear, it’s this: there is no good reason for Congress to renew the CDR authority.
The Call Detail Records Program Needs to End Chairman Nadler began the hearing by asking Susan Morgan of the NSA if she could point to any specific instance where the CDR program helped to avert any kind of an attack on American soil. Morgan pushed back on the question, telling Chairman Nadler that the value of an intelligence program should not be measured on whether or not it stopped a terrorist attack, and that as an intelligence professional, she wants to make sure the NSA has every tool in the tool box available.
However, the NSA previously reported it had deleted all the information it received from the 215 program since 2015. Morgan confirmed that part of the reason the NSA chose to mass delete all the records was because not all the information was accurate or allowed under the law.
In other words, the NSA wants Congress to renew its authority to run a program that violates privacy protections and collects inaccurate information without providing any way to measure if the program was at all useful. The agency’s best argument for why it wants to renew the legal authorization to use the CDR provision is because it might be useful one day.