KEY POINTS

  • A program to collect Americans' phone record data may be allowed to expire
  • Sen. Graham has said the program isn't used enough to merit its existence
  • Sen. McConnell, however, supports full reauthorization

Congress is looking increasingly likely to scrap a government surveillance program that was exposed to the public by former contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.

President Donald Trump and his administration have asked that lawmakers approve an extension to several programs authorized under the USA Freedom Act. Among them is the controversial phone records collection program operated under the National Security Agency, or NSA.

The program, also known as Section 215, involves the collection of phone call meta data, which includes identifying which phone numbers are in contact, when the calls are made and the duration of the conversations.

Now, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle as well as intelligence experts are questioning the merits of the call collection program. They point to the fact that Section 215 only proved useful to investigators twice between 2015 and 2019, prompting a criminal investigation in just one case, despite running a budget of $100 million.

Speaking to The Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that it “would be a tough sell if you don’t use it.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, agreed with Graham: “I don't believe that the experts find that call record reauthorization particularly helpful.” Cornyn indicated that he and other lawmakers would be open to resuming the program if the Justice Department proposed a more cost effective “technology solution.”

A bipartisan bill was recently filed by Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Mark Warner, D-Va., which would officially kill the call record collection program.

Not everyone on the Hill is keen to kill phone record collection, though. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he supports U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s request to renew all three provisions of the act.

“These tools have been overwhelmingly useful according to our intelligence advisors, and I hope that when the Senate deals with these expiring provisions in a couple of weeks we'll be able to continue to have them in law,” McConnell said.

Although Section 215 might fail to gain reauthorization from Congress, it appears likely that other provisions of the USA Freedom Act set to expire will get extensions.

Congress will have until March 15 to decide on reauthorization of Section 215 to keep it from expiring.

Lindsey Graham U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham announced he will run for president June 1, 2015. Photo: Reuters