An annual report issued on Tuesday by the top U.S. intelligence officer reveals that more than 151 million records of Americans' phone calls were collected by the U.S. National Security Agency last year. Surprisingly, this happened after Congress limited its ability to collect bulk phone records.
The report was the first measure of the effects of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which limited the NSA to collecting phone records and contacts of people U.S. and allied intelligence agencies suspect may have ties to terrorism.
The report found that the NSA collected the 151 million records even though it had warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court to spy on only 42 terrorism suspects in 2016, in addition to a handful identified the previous year.
The agency has been gathering a vast quantity of telephone metadata, records of callers' and recipients' phone numbers and the times and durations of the calls. However, the content of the calls has not been recorded. This has happened since the September 11, 2001, attack.
This came as Congress faced a decision on whether to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which permits the NSA to collect foreign intelligence information on non-U.S. persons outside the United States, and is scheduled to expire at the end of this year.
The majority of the privacy advocates have argued that Section 702 permits the NSA to spy on Internet and telephone communications of Americans without warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and that foreign intelligence could be used for domestic law enforcement purposes in a way that evades traditional legal requirements.
According to the report, one occasion back in 2016 saw the FBI obtain information about an American in response to a search of Section 702 data intended to produce evidence of a crime not related to foreign intelligence.
However, the report did not address how frequently the FBI obtained information about Americans while investigating a foreign intelligence matter.
The agency said it had stopped a form of surveillance that allowed it to collect the digital communications of Americans who mentioned a foreign intelligence target in their messages without a warrant.
President Donald Trump had earlier on said that former President Barack Obama ordered warrantless surveillance of his communications and that former national security adviser Susan Rice asked the NSA to unmask the names of U.S. persons caught in the surveillance.
The officials made a statement on Tuesday saying that the 151 million records collected last year were tiny compared with the number collected under procedures that were stopped after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the surveillance program in 2013.
The 151 million would include multiple calls made to or from the same phone numbers, the number of people whose records were collected also would be much smaller, the officials said. They said they had no breakdown of how many individuals' phone records were among those collected.
The top U.S. intelligence officer reported on Tuesday that the U.S. officials unmasked the names of fewer Americans in NSA eavesdropping reports in 2016 than they did the previous year.
Although the report did not identify who requested the names or on what grounds, it said that the names of 1,934 U.S. persons that were unmasked last year in response to specific requests were smaller compared with 2,232 in 2015.
The officials said in the report that U.S. intelligence agencies had gone out of their way to make public more information about U.S. electronic eavesdropping. Fortunately, this year’s report makes its way towards greater transparency, providing additional statistics beyond what is required by law.