The National Security Agency is considering expanding its trove of phone records of Americans' telephone calls and data, saying they'd be doing so to protect themselves from lawsuits, according to officials who spoke anonymously to the Wall Street Journal in an article published Thursday.
"No final decision has been made to preserve the data, officials said, and one official said that even if a decision is made to retain the information, it would be held only for the purpose of litigation and not be subject to searches," the paper's Devlin Barrett and Siobhan Gorman reported. "The government currently collects phone records on millions of Americans in a vast database that it can mine for links to terror suspects. The database includes records of who called whom, when they called and for how long."
The irony, of course, is obvious: after being sued over a program privacy groups see as unconstitutional, the government is considering expanding the clandestine effort.
"It's difficult to understand why the government would consider taking this position, when the relief we've requested in the lawsuit is a purge of our data,'' the American Civil Liberties Union's Patrick Toomey said.
Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican who is leading Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) legal charge against the program, told the Journal he thought idea was "just silly.'"
But officials are apparently serious. The concern is that in order to bring lawsuits, plaintiffs need to prove they've been spied upon. If records are deleted, it will limit the agency's ability to prove that privacy groups don't have standing or that they weren't targeted.
"A particular concern," one anonymous official purportedly told the Journal, "is that the older records may give certain parties legal standing to pursue their cases, and that deleting the data could erase evidence that the phone records of those individuals or groups were swept up in the data dragnet."
But "if the records are retained, they may remain in government computers for some time, because it could take years to resolve the spate of litigation over the programs," the paper added. "A federal judge in New York has ruled the program is legal, while a Washington, D.C., judge has ruled it almost certainly isn't. There are several other pending cases, and other lawsuits could yet be filed."
The first news organizations to report on the NSA's idea to expand bulk surveillance beyond the Journal were the Chinese news agency Xinhua and The Voice of Russia, a Raw Story search found. Revelations about Obama's spying programs have undermined U.S. efforts to criticize surveillance by less democratic governments.
Privacy groups, including the ACLU, have sparred with President Barack Obama over the massive spying program, which has vacuumed up vast amounts of Americans' data.
Last June, after The Guardian revealed that the government had swept up the entire call history of every American Verizon customer, the group sued the Administration, challenging the constitutionality of collecting the information under the First and Fourth Amendments.
"The practice is akin to snatching every American’s address book—with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long, and from where," the ACLU said in the complaint. "It gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious, and intimate associations."
Obama, on the defensive, ordered officials to end government storage of such data and try to find a place to store it somewhere else--perhaps with the phone companies who log the calls. This hasn't satisfied privacy advocates.
"President Obama's surveillance adjustments will be remembered as music on the Titanic unless his administration adopts deeper reforms," Steven Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International, said in a statement. "Shifting the storage of information does not address the fundamental problem: the collection of mass personal data in the first place."
The NSA hasn't made a final decision on whether to expand its database of the calls.
Below is Obama's speech about his NSA reforms, given Jan. 14, 2014; following is Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) response.
[Photo credit: AFP]