The Trump administration urged Congress in a Thursday letter to back legislation that would make permanent a National Security Agency program allowing agents to vacuum up Americans’ calls and text messages under suspicion of terrorism, according to The New York Times, which reviewed a copy of the letter.
The program is currently halted indefinitely, the administration acknowledged for the first time. Its legal authority is set to expire in December.
The letter, signed by outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, explained that intelligence officials had been internally debating the program’s relative value compared to its high costs and technical challenges. According to the Times, Coats argued that the program’s legal authority should be extended in the hope that technological advancements will make it more useful.
Once top-secret following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the massive spy program was reigned in by Congress after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed the world in 2013 what the agency was doing.
For years, the NSA systematically collected phone records in bulk, amounting to billions of records per day, as authorized by the Patriot Act. It set off a national discussion on privacy and security concerns when its existence became public, but intelligence officials appeared to have had difficulty justifying it, failing to point to any specific attack thwarted by the program.
In 2015, the provisions that allowed such sweeping data collection expired. Congress allowed the program to lapse for two tumultuous days before approving the USA Freedom Act, allowing the NSA to continue collecting phone logs, but with some restrictions meant to prevent its abuse. The agency was instructed to focus its efforts on suspected terrorists and their associates, requiring the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to sign off on each target.
But in March, The New York Times reported that the program had been quietly shut down some months previously after technical difficulties caused it to obtain more records than it had the legal authority to collect.