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NSA Collected Americans' Phone Records Despite Law Change: DNI Report

The NSA collected more than 151 million U.S. phone records last year, according to a report by the director of national intelligence.
Image: Dan Coats
Dan Coats at the U.S. Capitol in February 2015.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Security Agency collected more than 151 million records of Americans' phone calls last year, even after Congress limited its ability to collect bulk phone records, according to an annual report issued Tuesday by the top U.S. intelligence officer.

The report from the office of National Intelligence Director Dan Coats was the first measure of the effects of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which limited the NSA to collecting phone records and contacts of people who U.S. and allied intelligence agencies suspect may have ties to terrorism.

It found that the NSA collected the 151 million records even though it had warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to spy on only 42 terrorism suspects in 2016, in addition to a handful who were identified in 2015.

Image: Dan Coats
Dan Coats at the U.S. Capitol in February 2015.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The NSA has been gathering a vast quantity of telephone "metadata," records of callers' and recipients' phone numbers and the times and durations of the calls — but not their content — since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The report came as Congress faced a decision on whether to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which permits the NSA to collect foreign intelligence information on non-U.S. persons outside the United States and is scheduled to expire at the end of this year.

Privacy advocates have argued that Section 702 permits the NSA to spy on internet and telephone communications of Americans without warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and that foreign intelligence could be used for domestic law enforcement purposes in a way that evades traditional legal requirements.

Related: Ex-NSA Chief Hayden: Agency Loses Intel but Gains Politically With Collection Change

The report said that on one occasion in 2016, the FBI obtained information about an American in response to a search of Section 702 data intended to produce evidence of a crime not related to foreign intelligence.

The report did not address how frequently the FBI obtained information about Americans while investigating foreign intelligence matters, however.

The NSA said Friday that it had stopped a form of surveillance that allowed it to collect the digital communications of Americans who mentioned a foreign intelligence target in their messages without a warrant.

The new report also came amid allegations, recently repeated by U.S. President Donald Trump, that former President Barack Obama ordered warrantless surveillance of his communications and that former national security adviser Susan Rice asked the NSA to unmask the names of U.S. persons caught in the surveillance.

Both Republican and Democratic members of the congressional intelligence committees have said that so far they have found no evidence to support either allegation.

Officials argued Tuesday that the 151 million records collected last year were relatively few compared with the number collected under procedures that were stopped after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the surveillance program in 2013.

Related: Top Officials Want to Split Cyber Command From NSA

Because the 151 million would include multiple calls made to or from the same phone numbers, the number of people whose records were collected also would be much smaller, the officials said. They said they had no breakdown of how many individuals' phone records were among those collected.

In all, according to the report, U.S. officials unmasked the names of fewer Americans in NSA eavesdropping reports in 2016 than they did the previous year, Coats' office reported on Tuesday.

The report said the names of 1,934 "U.S. persons" were "unmasked" last year in response to specific requests, compared with 2,232 in 2015, but it did not identify who requested the names or why.

Officials said in the report that U.S. intelligence agencies had gone out of their way to make more information public about U.S. electronic eavesdropping.

"This year's report continues our trajectory towards greater transparency, providing additional statistics beyond what is required by law," said Timothy Barrett, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.