The National Security Agency has reportedly ended the intrusive spying program that combs through Americans’ calls and texts and won’t be seeking to renew it, begging the question – what are they doing now that’s more effective?
The secretive agency hasn’t used the controversial system – the descendant of the ‘Stellar Wind’ metadata collection program exposed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 – in months, according to Luke Murry, national security adviser to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who told the Lawfare podcast that the administration wouldn’t even bother renewing its congressional authority for the program when it expires at the end of the year.
The NSA program – which reportedly had never thwarted a single terrorist attack – was essentially mothballed last June, according to Murry. Which, many believe, would only indicate the agency has been busy with something else for the last eight months.
The Orwellian-sounding ‘USA Freedom Act’ replaced Stellar Wind in 2015, partially because of the fallout from Snowden’s exposure of that program, which was rammed through in the aftermath of 9/11 under the Patriot Act. It ended automatic bulk collection of metadata, leaving that treasure trove with the phone companies, but still permitted the NSA to access records of “surveillance targets” and anyone those targets had contacted, rubber-stamped by a judge to certify the target was “linked to terrorism.” Last year’s mass record deletion allegedlyoccurred because the NSA – which has billions of terabytes of data storage capacity secreted in a bunker in Utah to hold Americans’ metadata – received too much data from the phone companies and opted to delete it all rather than break the law.
Since the NSA has never before acknowledged –or cared about– breaking the law – indeed, the point of the outrage over Snowden’s leaks was that the intrusive practice flagrantly violated the Fourth Amendment, and NSA director James Clapper lied under oath to Congress about the existence of the program – their explanation rang false to many. The agency, unsurprisingly, had no comment in response to Murry’s statements.
Snowden himself cheered the news, as did Glenn Greenwald, who was the first to publish Snowden’s revelations. Others were more suspicious, given the NSA’s track record.
No intelligence agency has ever stopped invading citizens’ privacy just because its practices were exposed. There might be a Church Committee or two, and an agency director might even resign. But controversial practices like COINTELPRO, in which FBI agents infiltrated activist groups to sow discord and amplify internal tensions, and Operation Mockingbird, in which the CIA planted and coopted journalists in prominent media outlets, are alive and well.