Secrecy News

Senate Bill Requires Report on “All” NSA Bulk Collection

Updated below

The National Security Agency would be required to prepare an unclassified report on “all NSA bulk collection activities,” the Senate Appropriations Committee directed in its report on the Fiscal Year 2015 Department of Defense Appropriations bill, published yesterday.

The Committee told the NSA to prepare a report “describing all NSA bulk collection activities, including when such activities began, the cost of such activities, what types of records have been collected in the past, what types of records are currently being collected, and any plans for future bulk collection.”

Such a report would be expected to clarify whether NSA bulk collection extends beyond the acknowledged telephone metadata program in Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

The required report is to be “unclassified to the greatest extent possible,” the Senate Committee said.

In the reporting requirements that it imposed on NSA, the Senate Appropriations Committee notably went beyond what was required by the Senate or House Intelligence Committees.

The Appropriations Committee also directed NSA to submit additional reports on the total number of records acquired and reviewed by NSA in its bulk telephone metadata program over the past five years, and an estimate of the number of records of U.S. persons that have been acquired and reviewed in the telephone metadata program.

Another unclassified report is required to provide “a list of terrorist activities that were disrupted, in whole or in part, with the aid of information obtained through NSA’s telephone metadata program.”

A January 2014 report of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board found that the Section 215 telephone metadata program had “minimal value in protecting the nation from terrorism.”

“We are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack,” the PCLOB report said.

In contrast to the Section 215 bulk telephone metadata program, the PCLOB said in a report this month that the Section 702 program to collect the communications of targeted non-U.S. persons abroad “has proven valuable in a number of ways to the government’s efforts to combat terrorism,” and that it had enabled the government to “discover previously unknown terrorist operatives and disrupt specific terrorist plots.”

The Board cautioned, however, that the 702 program “may allow a substantial amount of private information about U.S. persons to be acquired by the government, examined by its personnel, and used in ways that may have a negative impact on those persons.”

An estimate of the amount of such U.S. person information collected under the Section 702 program was not specifically required by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Update: Identical reporting language was included by the Senate Appropriations Committee last year in its report on the FY2014 Defense Appropriations bill (h/t @byersalex), yet the required NSA reports were not produced.

At Emptywheel, Marcy Wheeler questions the utility of the proposed reports, particularly since the Senate Committee language lacks a clear, unambiguous definition of “bulk collection.”

One thought on “Senate Bill Requires Report on “All” NSA Bulk Collection

  1. I haven’t yet read the PCLOB report, but phrases like “has proven valuable in a number of ways to the government’s efforts to combat terrorism,” and “discover previously unknown terrorist operatives and disrupt specific terrorist plots” are not of much use in adjudicating the question of whether mass surveillance should be allowed to occur (except to show that security claims in support of such surveillance are characteristically vague), particularly when it is assumed as given that so-called non-U.S. persons have less right to be free than U.S. persons from invasions of privacy by U.S. intelligence agencies. Imagine the presumptuousness. How does anyone think that people in other countries will respond to this attitude? At any rate, coupled with “may allow a substantial amount of private information about U.S. persons to be acquired by the government, examined by its personnel, and used in ways that may have a negative impact on those persons.”, these formulations sound a lot like splitting the difference. Too much statutory legalese has infected this controversy, e.g. section 215, 702, etc. The law, insofar as it ever imposed restrictions on mass surveillance, including criminal penalties, never touched the National Security Agency, or the political authors of its wholesale violations, when the agency plied its various “programs” long before 702 in its current form existed. The degradation of the law is one result of these outrages, and it is not collateral.

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