WASHINGTON – The National Security Agency will mothball its mammoth archive of Americans’ telephone records, isolating the computer servers where they are stored and blocking investigators’ access, but will not destroy the database if its legal authority to collect the material expires on schedule this Sunday, officials said Thursday.
The NSA’s determination to keep billions of domestic toll records for counterterrorism and espionage investigations adds another note of uncertainty to a debate that pits the Obama administration’s national security team against opponents who argue the government data trove violates Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.
The political and legal dispute will come to a head Sunday when the Republican-led Senate returns to work a day early to seek a resolution – hours before the law used to authorize the controversial NSA program, and several other key counterterrorism provisions, expires at 11:59 p.m.
The final eight hours – starting at 3:59 p.m. Eastern time Sunday – will see a flurry of activity at U.S. phone companies and at the NSA as engineers take down servers, reconfigure monitoring software and unplug hardware from the main pipeline of telephone data traffic, according to several senior administration officials.
If the Senate stalemate pushes past 7:59 p.m., holes in the incoming data will begin to appear – and will grow – until nothing is collected after midnight, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
“We’re in uncharted waters,” one official said. “We have not had to confront addressing the terrorist threat without these authorities. And it’s going to be fraught with unnecessary risk.”
At that point, even if the Senate acts, the officials said it could take three or four days to go back to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court, for a legal order to restart the system and to reboot the complex data transfer networks at the telephone companies and at the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Any Senate action short of approving legislation that already has passed the House will result in a gap in the NSA archive of so-called metadata – records that show the time, date and numbers called, but not the contents – of virtually every domestic phone call.
Letting the bulk collection program go dark even for a few days is “playing national security Russian roulette,” said another official, and “hoping that we don’t have an instance where the FBI needs (the data) to do a national security investigation.”
If lawmakers vote before 8 p.m. Sunday, the NSA could reverse the shutdown and prevent a gap, the officials said. But that last-hour possibility appears unlikely.
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