The controversial surveillance program that gave the NSA access to the phone call records of millions of Americans has cost US taxpayers $100m – and resulted in just one useful lead over four years.
That’s the upshot of a report [PDF] from the US government’s freshly revived Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB). The panel dug into the super-snoops’ so-called Section 215 program, which is due to be renewed next month.
Those findings reflect concerns expressed by lawmakers back in November when at a Congressional hearing, the NSA was unable to give a single example of how the spy program had been useful in the fight against terrorism. At the time, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) stated bluntly: “If you can’t give us any indication of specific value, there is no reason for us to reauthorize it.”
That value appears to have been, in total, 15 intelligence reports at an overall cost of $100m between 2015 and 2019. Of the 15 reports that mentioned what the PCLOB now calls the “call detail records (CDR) program,” just two of them provided “unique information.” In other words, for the other 13 reports, use of the program reinforced what Uncle Sam’s g-men already knew. In 2018 alone, the government collected more than 434 million records covering 19 million different phone numbers.
What of those two reports? According to the PCLOB overview: “Based on one report, FBI vetted an individual, but, after vetting, determined that no further action was warranted. The second report provided unique information about a telephone number, previously known to US authorities, which led to the opening of a foreign intelligence investigation.”