National Security Agency officials violated secret federal court orders authorizing the daily collection of domestic email and telephone data from hundreds of millions of Americans, according to previously top-secret documents made public Wednesday by the Obama administration.
The documents didn’t disclose specific details of the violations. But they said that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court imposed temporary restrictions on the programs after it learned of the violations until it was satisfied the NSA had revamped its procedures to conform to court requirements.
Several senior members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, when approached about the breaches, said they were aware of them but declined to answer questions about their nature.
“I don’t know why you need to ask me,” said the panel’s chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
A spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told McClatchy that Wyden, who is also a member of the Intelligence Committee, was referring to the violations in an interview he gave Tuesday to MSNBC. An outspoken critic of the NSA programs, Wyden said that the breaches involving telephone call data were “serious.”
Since the data collection was revealed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the administration repeatedly has defended the sweeping collection of phone records as lawful, critical to anti-terrorism efforts and subject to exacting rules intended to protect privacy.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration made public a copy of a FISA court order that spelled out those limits. The order said NSA “shall restrict access” to the phone data “to authorized personnel who have received appropriate and adequate training.” The released document blacked out to whom the order had been directed, but its docket number matches a related order to Verizon Business Services that Snowden leaked to The Guardian newspaper. The number of blacked-out lines, however, suggest that the document, which was labeled “primary order,” applied to more companies than just Verizon.
The administration declassified the order and the documents that discussed the violations shortly before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at which senior officials from the Justice Department, the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence pressed their defense of the programs’ legality.
In a related development, The Guardian on Wednesday published another top-secret document leaked by Snowden that detailed a previously unknown NSA program that can chart individuals’ Internet activities in real time. It also allows analysts to search databases holding the emails, online chats and browsing histories of millions of people, according to the document.
The document touted the XKeyscore program as the NSA’s “widest-reaching” tool for developing intelligence from the Internet and said it mined the web from 150 locations around the globe. The revelation was immediately denounced by the Republican chairman and the Democratic senior member of House Intelligence Committee, who called the story “irresponsibly misleading.”
“This program does not target Americans,” Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and C.A. Ruppersberger, D-Md., said in a statement. “Further, the program reference in the story is not used for indiscriminate monitoring of the Internet, as many falsely believe. Rather the program is simply a tool used by our intelligence analysts to better understand foreign intelligence, including terrorist targets overseas.”
The developments added to the political uproar ignited by the Snowden leaks, which disclosed how the NSA collected “metadata” from the daily telephone calls and emails of tens of millions of Americans from commercial service providers with the authorization of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The administration says that it closed the bulk email collection program in 2011 after an internal review showed it had not proven useful to detecting terrorist plots. But some experts question whether such sweeps continue under a different initiative.
Metadata is generated by every telephone call and email. While it doesn’t include content, metadata can be used to chart the numbers and locations of callers and the people they contact, as well as the calls’ duration. Email metadata include the email addresses of senders and recipients. Experts say the information can be used to track people and build intimate portraits of their social circles and habits.