WASHINGTON — Years before Edward Snowden sparked a public outcry with the disclosure that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting American telephone records, some NSA executives voiced strong objections to the program, current and former intelligence officials say. The program exceeded the agency’s mandate to focus on foreign spying and would do little to stop terror plots, the executives argued.
The 2009 dissent, led by a senior NSA official and embraced by others at the agency, prompted the Obama administration to consider, but ultimately abandon, a plan to stop gathering the records.
The secret internal debate has not been previously reported. The Senate on Tuesday rejected an administration proposal that would have curbed the program and left the records in the hands of telephone companies rather than the government. That would be an arrangement similar to the one the administration quietly rejected in 2009.
The now-retired NSA official, a longtime code-breaker who rose to top management, had just learned in 2009 about the top-secret program created shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He says he argued to then-NSA Director Keith Alexander that storing the calling records of nearly every American fundamentally changed the character of the agency, which is supposed to eavesdrop on foreigners, not Americans.
Alexander politely disagreed, the former official said.
The former official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he didn’t have permission to discuss a classified matter, said he knows of no evidence the program was used for anything other than its stated purpose — to hunt for terrorism plots in the United States. But he said he and others made the case that the collection of American records in bulk crossed a line that he and his colleagues had been taught was sacrosanct.
He said he also warned of a scandal if it should be disclosed that the NSA was storing records of private calls by Americans — to psychiatrists, lovers and suicide hotlines, among other contacts.
Alexander, who led the NSA from 2005 until he retired last year, did not dispute the former official’s account, though he said he disagreed that the program was improper.
“An individual did bring us these questions, and he had some great points,” Alexander told the AP. “I asked the technical folks, including him, to look at it.” The NSA’s collection of American phone records was the first and most controversial of the Snowden revelations, at least for Americans, said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists. The disclosure of the program would likely have caused much less of a stir had the records collection been stopped by the time Snowden leaked it, he said.
Since Snowden cited government deception about the phone records collection as a key motivation, “It’s possible that the entire Snowden leak might have been diverted” had the government curbed the program in 2009 or 2011, Aftergood said.
“This program was so at variance with the official position of the U.S. government,” he said, “that it inspired its own unauthorized disclosure.”