When the NSA spy programs were first revealed, the government told us that it was only collecting records that were relevant to terrorism investigations. Further leaks contradicted that claim, but the government didn't address it. Now one government official has, and it's not pretty.
The Hill reports that Deputy Attorney General James Cole said that the government collects pretty much every phone call made in the U.S. Of course, when he says obtain, he means the metadata. The metadata contains the phone numbers and duration of calls, but it doesn't include the actual content of conversations.
What makes this particularly worrisome is that the government is using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify the mass collection of phone metadata. Section 215 only allows the collection of data that's relevant to a terrorist investigation, but a classified FISA court opinion gave the government more power under Section 215 to collect metadata on every phone call made within the U.S.
The relevancy of these phone records was brought into question during a House Judiciary Meeting. Rep. Blake Farenthold asked Cole how phone calls to his family are relevant to any investigation. The deputy attorney general responded by saying that a phone call like that wouldn't be relevant, and that the NSA wouldn't even look into it because the agency wouldn't have the necessary information to do so.
Cole summed up the NSA's mass surveillance by comparing terrorist threats to a needle in a haystack:
"If you're looking for a needle in the haystack you have to have the haystack."
Searching the haystack can only be approved by 22 NSA officials, but it doesn't exactly make us feel any better about the haystack existing in the first place.
This latest revelation will no doubt be used by some in Congress to push legislation that would stop the NSA's mass surveillance and data collection.