A new report shows the National Security Agency’s $100 million domestic phone surveillance program was mostly a waste.
According to the study by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), the NSA’s program resulted in only one “significant” investigation between 2015 and 2019. It led to two new leads, and 13 leads the FBI already had, according to the New York Times.
The PCLOB is an independent board with members appointed by the president and approved by the U.S. Senate. Created by the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, the board’s main task is “to ensure that the federal government’s efforts to prevent terrorism are balanced with the need to protect privacy and civil liberties.”
The findings were given to Congress on Tuesday, according to the Times, ahead of a House Judiciary Committee meeting on Wednesday. It’s all part of the ongoing debate about whether or not to extend the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which is set to expire in March.
That act tweaked the surveillance program revealed in 2013 by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It limited the amount of data that could be collected and shifted the responsibility for data collection from the federal government to phone companies.
Almost a year ago, the NSA suspended the program and recommended ending it because, well, it was too unwieldy and expensive. And the newly reported information seems to back that assertion.
While the PCLOB study didn’t reveal any specifics about that lone investigation, it did include a bit about the FBI’s two leads, according to the Times: “Based on one report, F.B.I. vetted an individual, but, after vetting, determined that no further action was warranted. 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 report also referenced two acts of terrorism — the June 2016 Pulse club shooting in Orlando and the November 2016 machete attack on the campus of Ohio State — for which the NSA program provided information. It’s unknown, however, if these incidents are related to the pair of unique leads the FBI obtained.
We’ve reached out to PCLOB for more information on the report, including if they’ll make it publicly available.
In the meantime, the stage is set for a new battle between intelligence officials and the Trump White House. While the NSA has encouraged abandoning the program, the White House has encouraged Congress to extend the program so it can be resurrected in the future.