WASHINGTON » The director of national intelligence Saturday declassified more documents that show how the National Security Agency was first authorized to start collecting bulk phone and Internet records in the hunt for al-Qaida terrorists.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained in a statement Saturday that President George W. Bush first authorized the spying in October 2001, as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program, just after the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush disclosed the program in 2005.
The Terrorist Surveillance Program — which had to be extended every 30-60 days by presidential order — eventually was replaced by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — a law that requires a secret court to OK the bulk collection.
The disclosures are part of the White House’s campaign to justify the NSA surveillance, following leaks to the media about the classified programs by former agency contractor Edward Snowden. President Barack Obama hinted Friday that he would consider some changes to NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records to address public’s concern about privacy. His comments came in a week where a federal judge declared NSA’s collection program "unconstitutional," and a presidential advisory panel suggested 46 changes to NSA operations. Those recommendations included forcing NSA to go to the court for every search of the phone records database and keeping that database in the hands of a third party — not the government.
The judge said there was little evidence any terror plot had been thwarted by the program, known as Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The panel recommended continuing the program but seeking a court order for each NSA records search. Obama said he would announce his decisions in January.
The documents released also include legal arguments by former national intelligence directors, including Dennis Blair’s reasons to keep NSA spying methods secret, in an ongoing case filed in 2006 as Shubert v. Bush and now known as Shubert v. Obama.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that’s filed a similar lawsuit, called it "a class action on behalf of all Americans against the government, alleging a massive, indiscriminate, illegal National Security Agency (NSA) dragnet of the phone calls and email of tens of millions of ordinary Americans."
Blair countered in 2009 that revealing information sought by the plaintiffs — including how information was collected and whether specific individuals were being spied upon, and what the programs had revealed about al-Qaida — could damage the hunt for terrorists.
"To do so would obviously disclose to our adversaries that we know of their plans and how we may be obtaining information," Blair said. Much of his 27-page response is redacted.
"We welcome the declassification of what the public has known for some time, which is that the Bush administration engaged in the bulk collection of extraordinarily sensitive information about millions of innocent Americans for years without any court review," said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "The government should have made its case to the public…years ago, so that our ordinary judicial and political processes could decide whether the programs are lawful and, if so, whether they are acceptable in our democracy."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation did not respond immediately to a request for comment.