The Obama administration declassified a series of documents on the National Security Agency's extensive surveillance of Americans' phone data on Wednesday.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the release was "in the interest of increased transparency," though the "transparency" comes after some of the documents were already leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
the provision of the Patriot Act that the court relied on to issue that order was up for reauthorization. The papers outlined the bulk collection of “metadata” logging all domestic phone calls and e-mails of Americans and are portrayed as an “early warning system” that allowed the government to quickly see who was linked to a terrorism suspect.
Referring to a provision allowed by Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the "Pen-Trap" provision in FISA, the 2011 document stated, "Both of these programs operate on a very large scale."
The third document is an April 2013 order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordering Verizon to turn over its customers' phone metadata. Though the name "Verizon" is not seen in the heavily redacted document, the Washington Post reports that
senior U.S. officials said it was issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to a subsidiary of Verizon in April. Officials described it as the formal order underlying the directive that was disclosed in June by Snowden.
Responding to the declassification of the document already revealed by Snowden, WikiLeaks' Julian Assange told Democracy Now! on Wednesday:
Well, Edward Snowden already made the order public, so, I mean, this is absurd. This is like our release of Guantánamo Bay documents and other documents. These have already been made public, and now the administration is going to apparently wave some magical pixie dust to remove the contaminant of it being formerly classified by the administration. So, I mean, here we have an example that there’s actually no disclosure before the public, until there is unauthorized disclosure before the public.
The documents were revealed the same day as the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on NSA surveillance, prompting Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to say at the hearing:
An hour ago, ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] declassified a FISA court order under Section 215 -- that's a good thing -- but ODNI has known for weeks that this hearing was coming and yet ODNI releases this material just a few minutes before the hearing began.
You know, again, it's a step forward, but you get the feeling when it's ad hoc transparency, that doesn't engender trust, I don't think.
At the hearing, FBI deputy director Sean Joyce defended the bulk collection of phone metadata at the hearing, saying, "We must have the dots to connect the dots."
An unofficial congressional hearing that would have featured voices from critics of NSA spying was also scheduled for Wednesday but was abruptly canceled after Obama called a surprise meeting with House Democrats.