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WASHINGTON Dissenters within the National Security Agency, led by a senior agency executive, warned in 2009 that the program to secretly collect American phone records wasnt providing enough intelligence to justify the backlash it would cause if revealed, current and former intelligence officials say.
The NSA took the concerns seriously, and many senior officials shared them. But after an internal debate that has not been previously reported, NSA leaders, White House officials and key lawmakers opted to continue the collection and storage of American calling records, a domestic surveillance program without parallel in the agencys recent history.
The warnings proved prophetic last year after the calling records program was made public in the first and most significant leak by Edward Snowden, a former NSA systems administrator who cited the governments deception about the program as one of his chief motivations for turning over classified documents to journalists. Many Americans were shocked and dismayed to learn that an intelligence agency collects and stores all their landline calling records.
In response, President Barack Obama is now trying to stop the NSA collection but preserve the agencys ability to search the records in the hands of the telephone companies an arrangement similar to the one the administration quietly rejected in 2009. But his plan, drawing opposition from most Republicans, fell two votes short of advancing in the Senate on Tuesday.
A now-retired NSA senior executive, who was a longtime code-breaker who rose to top management, had just learned in 2009 about the top secret program that was created shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He says he argued to then-NSA Director Keith Alexander that storing the calling records of nearly every American fundamentally changed the character of the agency, which is supposed to eavesdrop on foreigners, not Americans.
Alexander politely disagreed, the former official told The Associated Press.
The former official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he didnt have permission to discuss a classified matter, said he knows of no evidence the program was used for anything other than hunting for terrorism plots in the U.S. But he said he and others made the case that the collection of American records in bulk crossed a line that had been sacrosanct.
He said he also warned of a scandal if it should be disclosed that the NSA was storing records of private calls by Americans to psychiatrists, lovers and suicide hotlines, among other contacts.
Alexander, who led the NSA from 2005 until he retired last year, did not dispute the former officials account, though he said he disagreed that the program was improper.
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NSA dissenters warned of possible privacy backlash in 2009