Obama Administration Releases Classified NSA Documents

Months after Edward Snowden shocked the world by revealing the extent of the NSA’s surveillance efforts, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence pulled the curtain back even further by publicizing a once-secret program that collects records of all domestic phone calls in the United States. Newly-declassified documents outlining the call logging program were released at the start of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the topic Wednesday, just as The Guardian was doing some publishing of their own. The British paper revealed a 32-page presentation leaked by Snowden that explains an Internet-mining program called XKeyscore.

XKeyscore is an NSA tool that collects ‘nearly everything a user does on the internet’ and is the ‘widest-reaching’ of all programs that record online activity, according to The Guardian. Analysts using the system can even intercept ongoing real-time data from a person’s internet use. Snowden controversially described the program’s capabilities in a video interview released in June: “I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.”

Top-secret training materials detail the extent of XKeyscore. Credit: The Guardian

Top-secret training materials detail the extent of XKeyscore.
Credit: The Guardian

Government officials aggressively denied that claim. “He’s lying. It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R- MI), the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said of Snowden.

Requests for  information mined from huge agency databases are granted after filling out a simple form, requiring only a ‘broad justification.’ A court’s approval is not needed; such requests do not even require the approval of any other NSA personnel.

Meanwhile, the documents released by the government include a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruling that required a Verizon subsidiary to turn over all of its customer’s phone records from the previous three months. The secondary order claimed that the government could easily access logs when an executive branch official decides that a case includes “facts giving rise to a reasonable, articulable suspicion” of a number’s association with terrorism.

The document release also examined the provision of the Patriot Act that allowed the court to make such a ruling, which was up for reauthorization in 2011.

The controversial court order obtaining Verizon phone records was apparently rooted in a surveillance law that allows the FBI to access any records that are ‘relevant’ to an investigation. The question, then, is how the FISA court stretched that term to justify collecting records of all calls. Officials maintain that a subset of these calls will later prove relevant after analysis determines who has ties to suspected terrorists.

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