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Senators: NSA's bulk data collection isn't necessary to stop terrorism

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Not only is the dragnet surveillance of Americans' call records a violation of privacy rights, it's also ineffective.

That's the opinion of three senators who've come to support a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the National Security Agency's collection of bulk metadata taken from the phone calls of U.S. citizens. 

Senators Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) have filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the plaintiffs in First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA, a legal challenge raised in direct response to the domestic intelligence gathering revelations made by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden earlier this year. 

The crux of First Unitarian's claim is that the secretive data gathering program violates several key constitutional rights, including the First Amendment protection of free association, the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. But in addition to these concerns, in a brief filed on Tuesday, the trio of lawmakers from the Senate intelligence committee argue these NSA tactics simply do not work the way they are purported to.

"(T)he government continues to claim—without demonstrated evidence—that the bulk phone-records program is uniquely important for U.S. national security," the senators wrote in their amicus brief, adding that "the evidence shows that the executive branch's claims about the effectiveness of the bulk phone-records program have been vastly overstated and, in some cases, utterly misleading."

The senators refer to claims by supporters of NSA data collection who say the program is necessary for the defense of the United States. In their legal filing, they scrutinize a number of high profile cases that have been held up in defense of bulk data gathering. In one such case, involving the disruption of a plot to bomb the New York City subway system, the lawmakers argue that the government already had "all the evidence it needed in order to obtain the phone records of (Najibullah) Zazi and his associates" under a section of the Patriot Act or other legal tools.

Similarly, in the case of Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego man convicted of sending $8,500 to support Somalian extremist group al-Shabaab, the senators reiterate that there was "no shortage of authorities under which the United States" could have monitored Moalin's phone activity through existing and limited legal means.  

These and other cases present "no evidence that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records has provided any intelligence of value that could not have been gathered through less intrusive means," according to Udall, Wyden, and Heinrich.

Though all three senators have been critical of bulk data collection for years behind the closed doors of the classified intelligence community, it's only in the wake of Snowden's public disclosures that they've been able to openly criticize the program. 

H/T Ars Technica | Photo by Doug/Flickr