WASHINGTON: The Obama administration on Wednesday declassified a court order authorizing collection of millions of US phone records, even as it faced new disclosures about the reach of its secret electronic surveillance programs.
Under mounting pressure from lawmakers, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the newly declassified order spells out how the government can use the call data obtained from telecom giants like Verizon.
“The terms under which the government may access or use the records is covered by (a) detailed court order that the DNI declassified and released today,” Cole told senators.
That primary order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “provides that the government can search the data only if it has reasonable articulable suspicion that the telephone number being searched is associated with certain terrorist organizations.”
Administration officials confirm the order to compile phone metadata was issued to a subsidiary of Verizon Communications in April, the Washington Post reported.
A footnote clarifies that “telephone metadata does not include the substantive content of any communication… or the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer.”
The order was among three secret documents declassified by the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, which said Clapper “determined that the release of these documents is in the public interest.”
The move to confront growing opposition to the secret programs came as the administration faced new disclosures from Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor at the center of the controversy.
The latest documents obtained by him and published by British daily the Guardian revealed the existence of a secret surveillance system known as XKeyscore that allows US intelligence to monitor “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet.”
The Guardian said it was the most wide-reaching program operated by the National Security Agency.
XKeyscore’s existence proved the truth of Snowden’s earlier claim, denied by some US officials, that before he quit the NSA he could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email,” it said.
Snowden, who is now stranded in the transit area of a Moscow airport, fled the United States after downloading NSA files that have made for one bombshell leak after another.
Since he disclosed the vast scale of the electronic surveillance operations in June, public sentiment in the US has shifted against them.
At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Cole and US intelligence officers defended the metadata program as a crucial national security tool.
But the panel’s chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy, sharply questioned the usefulness of the information gathered.
“If this program is not effective, it must end. And so far, I am not convinced by what I have seen,” Leahy said.
Officials said the gathered data has contributed to the disruption of 54 terror threats or events, including 13 on US soil.
Deputy FBI director Sean Joyce insisted that the telephone data program, authorized by the Patriot Act that came into law shortly after the 9/11 attacks of 2011, has played a crucial role in “closing the gaps and seams” of intelligence gathering.
“We must have the dots to connect the dots,” Joyce said.
Leahy was not buying it, saying there would always be more “dots” to collect and analyze.
“The government is already collecting data n millions of innocent Americans on a daily basis, based on a secret legal interpretation of a statute that does not on its face appear to authorize this type of bulk collection,” Leahy said.
“What will be next? And when is enough enough?”
During the occasionally tense hearing, DNI general counsel Robert Litt said the White House was willing to consider changes.
“We are open to re-evaluating this program in ways that perhaps can provide greater confidence and public trust,” Litt said.
Congress will play a vital role. “There are going to be some proposals to changes in law,” Leahy said, citing legislation he and others have introduced to restrict metadata collection only to those Americans linked to an ongoing terrorism investigation.
But fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned against efforts that would hamstring US phone or Internet data collection operations.
“We would place this nation in jeopardy if we eliminate these programs,” she said.
Senator Chuck Grassley, the panel’s top Republican, has supported the intelligence programs but suggested “increased transparency” for the process.
The hearing turned at times to Snowden and how he was able to disappear with classified intelligence data.
“In this case I think we can say it failed,” NSA deputy director John Inglis said of the agency’s efforts to prevent leaks.