December 17, 2015 / 12:55 AM / 2 years ago

UPDATE 3-U.S. Republican fight on NSA spying highlights program's new sweep

(Recasts with focus on NSA spying capabilities)

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON, Dec 16 (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence agencies can now reach almost all domestic phone records, far more than they collected under a now-scrapped program by the National Security Agency, according to Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

That estimate of the amount of U.S. phone records now available to investigators put the spotlight on a new intelligence reform law at a time when the limits of surveillance are being debated again after this month's deadly shootings in San Bernardino, California.

In the Republican presidential debate on Tuesday night, Cruz, a Texas senator, defended his support for the USA Freedom Act, a reform passed this year that prohibits the NSA from collecting domestic call metadata in bulk, by saying the new system was better for intelligence agencies.

"The old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists," Cruz said. "The new program covers nearly 100 percent."

That prompted a backlash from Senator Marco Rubio, a Cruz rival for the Republican nomination for the November 2016 presidential election, and Senator Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Both favor restoring the NSA's ability to collect phone records in bulk.

Burr said on Wednesday morning his staff would look into whether Cruz had spilled confidential information. By afternoon, Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said no investigation would be undertaken.

Cruz is not a member of the intelligence committee. But before the new law's passage in June, intelligence officials held classified briefings with lawmakers to discuss the legislation.

The Cruz campaign said the coverage figures for the old program that he cited in defending his pro-reform vote had been previously reported, including by the Washington Post in 2014. "Those figures have been widely reported and are saturated in the public domain," Rick Tyler, a Cruz spokesman, said on Wednesday.

EASIER ACCESS?

While the USA Freedom Act's ending of bulk data collection is considered a win by most privacy advocates, it also gives U.S. intelligence analysts easier access to a more complete set of phone records, experts have said.

Under the old system, the NSA collected millions of U.S. call records every day and stored them in their own servers for up to five years. Analysts could query the data when hunting for intelligence and social links on potential suspects.

But the program, which caused a storm of controversy when it was disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, did not work as designed, officials have said.

For one thing, the NSA struggled to collect cellphone records via the old authority as the number of such accounts grew and landline accounts dropped.

A report issued in December 2013 by a surveillance review group formed by the Obama administration found "the metadata captured by the program covers only a portion of the records of only a few telephone service providers."

The review group and another independent government watchdog concluded the NSA program had been ineffective.

The Freedom Act ended the NSA's bulk collection of domestic call metadata - the numbers and time stamps of a call but not its actual content. Instead, records are kept by phone companies and can be requested by the NSA with judicial approval.

While data is no longer vacuumed by the NSA in bulk, "the overall volume of call detail records subject to query pursuant to court order is greater under USA Freedom Act," the Office of the National Director of Intelligence said in a fact sheet describing the new system that took effect last month. (Reporting by Dustin Volz and Ginger Gibson; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Peter Cooney)

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