Washington Bureau

07.18.13

Dennis Blair: NSA Asked Telecoms To Store Calling Records in 2009, Was Rejected

The companies’ response, said Blair, was "more that they would rather not than a refusal." Eli Lake reports from the Aspen Security Dialogue.

The National Security Agency approached telecommunications companies in 2009, and asked them to store calling records it could access later if a phone number was suspected to be connected to a terrorist. 

Speaking at the Aspen Security Dialogue Thursday, Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence said, "We went to the telecom companies and asked if we could go to them and get this data and the telecom companies said, 'no.'" 

If the telecommunications companies had agreed to this proposal, the Obama administration may have avoided one of its biggest scandals. Last month, the Washington Post and the Guardian Newspaper printed a special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant compelling Verizon to grant the NSA access to store all call records between April 25 and July 19. The court order was an example of a warrant that allowed the NSA to collect the data the telephone companies would not store themselves. These kinds of warrants have been renewed regularly since the Patriot Act was amended in 2008 to make a George W Bush administration program to monitor phone calls of suspected terrorists inside the United States accountable to the oversight of the secret foreign intelligence surveillance court. 

To date, telecommunications companies are not allowed to discuss publicly these arrangement or negotiations because of a gag order. Blair however did discuss the 2009 negotiations. He said the Obama administration at one point even offered to pay the companies to store the data, but the request was denied. 

In an interview after his session, Blair characterized the telecom’s response as "more that they would rather not than a refusal." Nonetheless, the NSA continued to collect the call records themselves.  

Blair in the interview said the proposal to have the companies store the data would have meant the U.S. government would submit a suspicious number to the companies and the companies would then provide a report of the call records or metadata associated with that number and other numbers the suspected caller contacted.