Ted Rall: NSA To Store More Data Longer — and Blames You

Written by Ted Rall

In a weird twist, NSA officials say lawsuits and press reports are forcing them to hang onto data and grab more of it than they would otherwise. By Ted Rall.

aNewDomain.net — In this exclusive commentary for aNewDomain, our Ted Rall says the NSA is blaming civil Libertarians for expanded metadata collection.

By way of The Wall Street Journal:

The government is considering enlarging the National Security Agency’s controversial collection of Americans’ phone records—an unintended consequence of lawsuits seeking to stop the surveillance program, according to officials.”

You gotta love the NSA.

Talk about consistent: No matter how outrageous the revelations of their spying on hapless Americans, regardless of the fact that their operations are increasingly viewed as illegal, and despite a souring political environment in which public distrust has grown by the day, the NSA chooses more spying over less spying time after time.

70 percent of Americans now oppose the NSA spying on them.

But first, here’s something important that mainstream media accounts of the NSA scandals don’t mention these days.

The metadata collection program, which sweeps up everything about every phone call made in the United States except the contents of the calls themselves — from number, to number, duration, from location, to location, ID of each phone, and so on — is the focus of press coverage (much of it misleadingly tamped down), lawsuits and political debate.

But telephony metadata gathering is just one of dozens of NSA programs that target Americans.

And actually, Virginia, yes, they do listen to our actual calls. And NSA data collectors store recordings of them, too.

So, bear in mind, the Journal piece only concerns metadata.

Anyway, the NSA currently discards its telephony records on the 30 percent of all cell phone calls made in the United Stated every day — after about five years.

Or so it says.

Because the data is evidence in lawsuits filed by the ACLU and other pro-privacy groups, top NSA spooks say they now will be forced to hold on to the data they grab even longer than five years. At least until the litigation is resolved in the courts, which could take a long time.

“A particular concern, according to one official, 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,” wrote the Journal reporters.

To this, the ACLU’s Patrick Tommey replied:

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.”

Background: The ACLU claims standing to sue — the requirement that a plaintiff be able to prove that it was specifically harmed — because the NSA intercepted privileged communications between its employees and whistleblowers, members of Congress and so on.

Delete our metadata, the ACLU is demanding.

Now, the NSA isn’t merely saying no. It is actually claiming that the demand itself — the lawsuit asking for the deletion — is cause for the agency to keep data longer than the usual five years.


Requisitions for extra servers at the NSA’s Utah data farm are no doubt already in key Senatorial in-boxes.

Sharp readers will recall President Obama’s big NSA speech in January in which he said, among other things, that he was “end[ing] the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists.”

Doesn’t that render the ACLU and other lawsuits kind of moot?

Not really. Because when the president says he plans to end a program as it exists, what he really means is “keep it going exactly the same way, and add a little bureaucratic window-dressing.”

The Digital Trends blog reports:

NSA analysts will no longer be permitted to ‘query’ its database of telephone metatada without first receiving permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). And queries must now be limited to two steps from a ‘phone number associated with a terrorist organization.'”

The metadata will be still be collected. It will continue to be stored. NSA spies who want to look at it will need approval from the FISA Court (which, as a rubberstamp body, probably won’t be hard to get). And there’s the two-step vs. three-step thing, to which I assume you’re thinking, as I am, whatever.

Scratch that. It will continue to be stored even longer.

Remember who’s to blame when, 10 years from now, metadata that might have disappeared by then turns up to bite you on your ass.

Headlines will scream: “Hackers Access NSA Data Trove, Post It Online — Divorce Lawyers Ecstatic.”

It’s not the NSA’s fault. It’s the ACLU’s.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.

Based in New York, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.