NSA collected more than 151 million American phone calls last year despite law change

WASHINGTON, May 2 (Reuters) - The U.S. National Security Agency collected more than 151 million records of Americans' phone calls last year, even after Congress limited its ability to collect bulk phone records, according to an annual report issued on Tuesday by the top U.S. intelligence officer.

The report from the office of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was the first measure of the effects of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which limited the NSA to collecting phone records and contacts of people U.S. and allied intelligence agencies suspect may have ties to terrorism.

It found that the NSA collected the 151 million records even though it had warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court to spy on only 42 terrorism suspects in 2016, in addition to a handful identified the previous year.

RELATED: A look at those involved in the Freedom Act, Patriot Act and NSA

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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)
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)
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)
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The NSA has been gathering a vast quantity of telephone "metadata," records of callers' and recipients' phone numbers and the times and durations of the calls - but not their content - since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The report came as Congress faced a decision on whether to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which permits the NSA to collect foreign intelligence information on non-U.S. persons outside the United States, and is scheduled to expire at the end of this year.

Privacy advocates have argued that Section 702 permits the NSA to spy on Internet and telephone communications of Americans without warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and that foreign intelligence could be used for domestic law enforcement purposes in a way that evades traditional legal requirements.

The report said that on one occasion in 2016, the FBI obtained information about an American in response to a search of Section 702 data intended to produce evidence of a crime not related to foreign intelligence.

The report did not address how frequently the FBI obtained information about Americans while investigating a foreign intelligence matter, however.

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On Friday, the NSA said it had stopped a form of surveillance that allowed it to collect the digital communications of Americans who mentioned a foreign intelligence target in their messages without a warrant.

TRUMP'S ALLEGATIONS

The new report also came amid allegations, recently repeated by U.S. President Donald Trump, that former President Barack Obama ordered warrantless surveillance of his communications and that former national security adviser Susan Rice asked the NSA to unmask the names of U.S. persons caught in the surveillance.

Both Republican and Democratic members of the congressional intelligence committees have said that so far they have found no evidence to support either allegation.

Officials on Tuesday argued that the 151 million records collected last year were tiny compared with the number collected under procedures that were stopped after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the surveillance program in 2013.

RELATED: President Trump accuses Obama on Twitter of wiretapping him

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President Trump accuses Obama on Twitter of wiretapping him
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
Is it legal for a sitting President to be "wire tapping" a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!
I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
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Because the 151 million would include multiple calls made to or from the same phone numbers, the number of people whose records were collected also would be much smaller, the officials said. They said they had no breakdown of how many individuals' phone records were among those collected.

In all, according to the report, U.S. officials unmasked the names of fewer Americans in NSA eavesdropping reports in 2016 than they did the previous year, the top U.S. intelligence officer reported on Tuesday.

The report said the names of 1,934 "U.S. persons" were "unmasked" last year in response to specific requests, compared with 2,232 in 2015, but it did not identify who requested the names or on what grounds.

Officials said in the report that U.S. intelligence agencies had gone out of their way to make public more information about U.S. electronic eavesdropping.

"This year's report continues our trajectory toward greater transparency, providing additional statistics beyond what is required by law," said Office of the Director of National Intelligence spokesman Timothy Barrett.

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