WASHINGTON - The director of national intelligence on Saturday declassified more documents that outline how the National Security Agency was first authorized to start collecting bulk phone and Internet records in the hunt for al-Qaeda terrorists, and how a court eventually gained oversight of the program.
The declassification came after the Justice Department complied with a federal court order to release its previous legal arguments for keeping the programs secret.
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 to 60 days by presidential order - eventually was replaced by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires a secret court to approve the bulk collection.
Clapper also released federal court documents from successive intelligence directors arguing for keeping the programs secret, in response to a September order from a U.S. District Court judge in California to declassify whatever details already had been revealed as part of the White House's campaign to justify the surveillance. Former agency contractor Edward Snowden first made the surveillance programs public in leaks to the media.
President Obama hinted Friday that he would consider changes to the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records to address the public's concerns about privacy. His comments came in a week when a federal judge in Washington declared NSA's collection program very likely unconstitutional, and a presidential advisory panel suggested 46 changes to NSA operations.
The judge said there was little evidence that any terror plot had been thwarted by the program, known as Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The advisory panel recommended continuing the program, but requiring a court order for each NSA search of the phone records, and keeping that database in the hands of a third party - not the government. Obama said he would announce his decisions in January.
"There has never been a comprehensive government release . . . that wove the whole story together - the timeline of authorizing the programs and the gradual transition to [court] oversight," said Mark Rumold, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that is suing the NSA to reveal more about the bulk records programs. "Everybody knew that happened, but this is the first time I've seen the government confirm those twin aspects."
That unexpected windfall of disclosures early Saturday came along with the release of documents outlining arguments that releasing the information would harm national security. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in September ordered the administration to make public the documents, known as state secrets declarations.
The Justice Department issued the declarations late Friday in two ongoing class-action cases: Shubert v. Bush, now known as Shubert v. Obama, on behalf of Verizon customers; and Jewel v. NSA, on behalf of AT&T customers.
Calls to the Justice Department and the director of national intelligence's office were not answered.