NSA will stop looking at old phone records

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Court Asked to Kill Off NSA's 'Zombie Dragnet' of Americans' Bulk Phone Data

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration has decided that the National Security Agency will soon stop examining - and will ultimately destroy - millions of American calling records it collected under a controversial program leaked by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

When Congress passed a law in June ending the NSA's bulk collection of American calling records after a six-month transition, officials said they weren't sure whether they would continue to make use of the records that had already been collected, which generally go back five years. Typically, intelligence agencies are extremely reluctant to part with data they consider lawfully obtained. The program began shortly after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, but most of the records are purged every five years.

The NSA's collection of American phone metadata has been deeply controversial ever since Snowden disclosed it to journalists in 2013. President Barack Obama sought, and Congress passed, a law ending the collection and instead allowing the NSA to request the records from phone companies as needed in terrorism investigations.

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NSA will stop looking at old phone records
President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Obama began with commenting on flooding in Texas and calling on Senate to act on USA Freedom Act. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: Sen. Patrick Leahy (L) (D-VT) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) leave the Senate floor after passage of the USA Freedom Act June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. The legislation will replace the recently expired Patriot Act and passed the Senate by a vote of 67-32. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Joyce Barr (L), chief FOIA officer for the State Department, Melanie Anne Pustay (2L), director of the Office of Information Policy at the Justice Department, Karen Neuman (3L), chief FOIA officer at the Homeland Security Department, and Mary Howard (2R), director of the Internal Revenue Service's Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure Division, watch as Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-CA) (2R) and Brodi Fontenot, chief FOIA officer at the Treasury Department, shake hands during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill June 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee held the hearing about the Freedom of Information Act process. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) talks with reporters about the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act at the U.S. Capitol June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Patrick Leahy, the legislation passed the Senate 67-32, matches the House version of the bill and will go to President Barack Obama for his signature. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (L) tells House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) 'A bad bill is better than no bill at all,' after the final passage of the USA FREEDOM Act at the U.S. Capitol June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Reforming how the nation's spy agencies collects citizens' phone data, the legislation passed the Senate 67-32, matching the House version of the bill and going to President Barack Obama for his signature. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: Sen. John Thune (R-SD) (C) talks with reporters after the final passage of the USA FREEDOM Act at the U.S. Capitol June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Reforming how the nation's spy agencies collects citizens' phone data, the legislation passed the Senate 67-32, matching the House version of the bill and going to President Barack Obama for his signature. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) talks with U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) (L) in between television interviews in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda on Capitol Hill June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. In protest of the National Security Agency's sweeping program to collect U.S. citizens' telephone metadata, Paul blocked an extension of some parts of the USA PATRIOT Act, allowing them to lapse at 12:01 a.m. Monday. The Senate will continue to work to restore the lapsed authorities by amending a House version of the bill and getting it to President Obama later this week. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) does a live interview with FOX News in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda on Capitol Hill June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. In protest of the National Security Agency's sweeping program to collect U.S. citizens' telephone metadata, Paul blocked an extension of some parts of the USA PATRIOT Act, allowing them to lapse at 12:01 a.m. Monday. The Senate will continue to work to restore the lapsed authorities by amending a House version of the bill and getting it to President Obama later this week. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Earnest discussed the NSA phone collection bill, US-led coalition's IS group strategy, and Bruce Jenner's transition to Caitlyn Jenner, and other topics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: The U.S. Capitol is illuminated at dusk, May 31, 2015 in Washington, DC. The National Security Agency's authority to collect bulk telephone data is set to expire June 1, unless the Senate can come to an agreement to extend the surveillance programs. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: (L - R) Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) listens as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to reporters after exiting the Senate chamber, on Capitol Hill, May 31, 2015 in Washington, DC. The National Security Agency's authority to collect bulk telephone data is set to expire June 1, unless the Senate can come to an agreement to extend the surveillance programs. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill, May 31, 2015 in Washington, DC. The National Security Agency's authority to collect bulk telephone data is set to expire June 1, unless the Senate can come to an agreement to extend the surveillance programs. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) talks with reporters on his way to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill, May 31, 2015 in Washington, DC. The National Security Agency's authority to collect bulk telephone data is set to expire June 1, unless the Senate can come to an agreement to extend the surveillance programs. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama meets with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 29, 2015. The said a "handful of senators" are the only thing standing in the way of an extension of key Patriot Act provisions before they expire at midnight Sunday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama speaks to media as he meets with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 29, 2015. The president said a "handful of senators" are the only thing standing in the way of an extension of key Patriot Act provisions before they expire at midnight Sunday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 29: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) talks to members of the news media after meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the Oval Office at the White House May 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. Calling it an essential piece of legislation for fighting terrorism, Obama demanded that the U.S. Senate pass the USA Freedom Act, a piece of legislation that would end bulk collection of Americans' metadata, improve the FISA court and other security reforms. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) talks to reporters after leaving the Senate floor on Capitol Hill, May 31, 2015 in Washington, DC. The National Security Agency's authority to collect bulk telephone data is set to expire June 1, unless the Senate can come to an agreement to extend the surveillance programs. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) gets into an elevator after leaving the Senate floor on Capitol Hill, May 31, 2015 in Washington, DC. The National Security Agency's authority to collect bulk telephone data is set to expire June 1, unless the Senate can come to an agreement to extend the surveillance programs. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 19: Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) talks to reporters after the weekly Senate GOP policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol May 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. Although he does not support the House version of the PATRIOT Act reauthorization, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the Senate would go forward with a vote on the legislation that would eliminate the bulk data collection programs, which were exposed by Edward Snowden. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In this image from Senate video, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and a Republican presidential contender, speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate Wednesday afternoon, May 20, 2015, at the Capitol in Washington, during a long speech opposing renewal of the Patriot Act. Paul claimed he was filibustering, but under the Senate rules, he wasn’t. (Senate TV via AP)
FILE - In this May 19, 2015 file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Key Patriot Act anti-terror provisions, including bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, expire at midnight unless senators come up with an 11th hour deal in an extraordinary Sunday afternoon session. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
FILE - In this April 29, 2015 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at the National Press Club in Washington. Republican senators eyeing the presidency split over the renewal of the Patriot Act surveillance law, with civil libertarians at odds with traditional defense hawks who back tough spying powers in the fight against terrorism. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)
FILE - In this May 16, 2015 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul speaks in Des Moines, Iowa. Paul vowed on Monday to “everything possible” to block renewal of the terrorism-era Patriot Act, but the Republican presidential hopeful conceded it may not be enough. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
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That still left the question of what to do about the records already in the database. On Monday, the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement those records would no longer be examined in terrorism investigations after Nov. 29, and would be destroyed as soon as possible.

The records can't be purged at the moment because the NSA is being sued over them, the statement said.

The NSA queried the database around 300 times a year against phone numbers suspected of being linked to terrorism. But the program was not considered instrumental in detecting terror plots.

It later emerged that some officials inside the NSA wanted to unilaterally stop collecting the records, both because they were concerned about the civil liberties information and because they didn't believe the program was effective. Many mobile phone records, for example, were not collected.

Still, in the event of an attack, the records currently being stored would allow the NSA and the FBI to quickly map connections going back several years. Without the database, that task will be somewhat harder because the records will have to be obtained. And the top terrorism fear among American officials at the moment is an attack by a disgruntled American who has been radicalized by an Islamic State operative abroad.

"There's a potential reduction in capability that they are accepting under pressure," said Steven Aftergood, who writes about intelligence and secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. "Whatever intelligence and analytical value might reside in this data will be eliminated. It's a political choice that they are making, and it shows that at the end of the day they are a law-abiding organization. They are not putting their intelligence interests above external control."

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