It's time to end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records

In recent weeks, intelligence officials have made new assertions about the value of the declassified NSA surveillance programs. In doing so, they have conflated two programs — the collection of the content of communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The suggestion that “these programs” have disrupted “dozens of potential terrorist plots” is misleading when it hasn’t been demonstrated that the bulk phone records collection program provides a unique value.

It may be more convenient for the NSA to collect phone records in bulk rather than asking phone companies to search for specific numbers, but convenience alone cannot justify the collection of millions of Americans’ personal information, especially when the information the government actually needs can be obtained by less intrusive methods. A few hundred court orders per year would not overwhelm the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and emergency authorizations could be used in urgent circumstances.

We urge the administration to end bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. We will push to pass our legislation, which would effectively do the same — and thereby focus this country’s counterterrorism and espionage efforts on the real threats to our national security.