The really big winner here is the NSA. Over at its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, intelligence officials are high-fiving, because they know things could have turned out much worse.
“What no one wants to say out loud is that this is a big win for the NSA, and a huge nothing burger for the privacy community,” said a former senior intelligence official, one of half a dozen who have spoken to The Daily Beast about the phone records program and efforts to change it.
Here’s the dirty little secret that many spooks are loath to utter publicly, but have been admitting in private for the past two years: The program, which was exposed in documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013, is more trouble than it’s worth.
“It’s very expensive and very cumbersome,” the former official said. It requires the agency to maintain huge databases of all Americans’ landline phone calls. But it doesn’t contribute many leads on terrorists. It has helped prevent few—if any—attacks. And it’s nowhere near the biggest contributor of information about terrorism that ends up on the desk of the president and other senior decision makers.
If, after the most significant public debate about balancing surveillance and liberty in a generation, this is the program that the NSA has to give up, they’re getting off easy.