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NSA snooping on a third of the nation's calls

National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md.
National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md.
Wikipedia Commons

Officials familiar with the once-secret National Security Agency program that collects bulk records of domestic phone calls made by Americans said it is taking in about one-third of the total volume of calls each day, a report said Friday.

The New York Times said the NSA is collecting much more data from traditional landline phones than from cell calls because of the explosive growth of the latter, and because of technological hurdles.

The new revelations come just a few days after the secretive Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court agreed to implement some new operational restrictions on the NSA that had been proposed by President Obama. They include restrictions on how and when NSA analysts can access the raw database containing the bulk phone records, said the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“The bulk call records program began under the Bush administration based on claimed wartime powers and in 2006 was brought under the surveillance court’s authority. It came to light after leaks by the former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden,” the Times reported.

Earlier in the day, the Washington Post reported that the spy agency takes in data on less than 30 percent of phone calls. But the article also said the NSA had been collecting almost all records about Americans’ phone calls in 2006, and that the spy agency was trying to restore comprehensive coverage.

The Times reported that officials have partly confirmed what the Post reported, but they noted that it was difficult to provide an actual percentage of calls being intercepted.

A review group appointed by Obama regarding the government’s surveillance policy reported last month that though the program “acquires a very large amount” of phone data on a daily basis, it was still “only a small percentage of the total” calls.

Some officials have said that U.S. intelligence agencies were miffed about assumptions that the NSA was collecting all phone records. That said, they have been hesitant to comment or attempt to set the record straight, because doing so would draw attention to the agency’s still-limited cell phone interception capability, apparently.

Despite outrage from lawmakers and citizens alike, a federal judge in New York ruled in December that the NSA’s massive domestic data collection program laid bare by Snowden’s revelations was indeed lawful.

The 53-page ruling from U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III came less than two weeks after a separate district judge, Richard J. Leon, ruled the program violated the Fourth Amendment.

For his part, Pauley rejected Fourth Amendment arguments by the American Civil Liberties Union and accepted the government’s argument that, had the NSA conducted blanket data collection prior to the 9/11 attacks, it might have been able to prevent them.

“The government learned from its mistake and adapted to confront a new enemy: a terror network capable of orchestrating attacks across the world,” Pauley wrote. “It launched a number of counter-measures, including a bulk telephony metadata collection program — a wide net that could find and isolate gossamer contacts among suspected terrorists in an ocean of seemingly disconnected data.”

He added: “This blunt tool only works because it collects everything.”

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