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NSA Program that Accessed Americans’ Phone Records Resulted in Just Two Unique Leads in Four Years

A customer compares an iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max at the Apple Store in Singapore, September 21, 2018. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

A $100 million program that allowed the National Security Agency to access American citizens’ domestic phone logs and text messages produced just two unique leads from 2015 to 2019, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

A declassified study conducted by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an oversight organization established by Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, sheds light on the NSA operation to collect certain phone logs and text messages. The operation was authorized under the USA Freedom Act of 2015, but in four years the operation produced 15 leads, only two of which provided information the FBI did not already possess. Only one of those unique leads panned out into an investigation.

“Based on one report, FBI vetted an individual, but, after vetting, determined that no further action was warranted,” the study said regarding the unique leads. “The second report provided unique information about a telephone number, previously known to U.S. authorities, which led to the opening of a foreign intelligence investigation.”

The Oversight Board’s chairman, Adam Klein, praised the NSA for shutting down the operation after the agency concluded it was problematic.

“It shows a lot of judgment to acknowledge that something that consumed a lot of resources and time did not yield the value anticipated,” Klein told the Times. “We want agencies to be able to reflect on their collection capabilities and wind them down where appropriate. That’s the best way to ensure civil liberties and privacy are balanced with operational needs.”

The news comes before a Wednesday House Judiciary Committee meeting on whether to adjust aspects of the USA Freedom Act. The legislation is itself a modification of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and is set to expire on March 15. The Trump administration is mulling whether to renew the legislation following the Justice Department Inspector General report on FISA abuses by the FBI, in the agency’s application for a warrant to wiretap former Trump-campaign adviser Carter Page.

Zachary Evans is a news writer for National Review Online. He is a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces and a trained violist.

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