The demands, issued under a gag order that threatened executives with jail, covered past records and real-time information about billions of telephone calls and emails received or sent by Americans and others around the world, regardless of whether they were under direct suspicion. The orders did not cover the text of the email or the sounds of voices on a call.
The government stored the metadata for a set period, but said it queried the data only when it was relevant to an active counterterrorism investigation.
According to the documents, the government issued 539 business records requests from fiscal year 2005 to 2011.
The number dropped dramatically in the last years of the Bush administration, from 155 in 2005 to just six requests in 2007. But under Mr. Obama, it leapt to 96 in 2010 and reached a high of 205 in 2011 — the most recent year for which information was released.
The secret court, chartered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, approved every one of those requests, though the judges did require modifications to more than a quarter of them.
Mr. Birmingham, the intelligence spokesman, said that shows security officials are diligent in crafting their requests to fall under the law.
“We do not submit a request unless we think it will be approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” he said, pointing out the number of times the court asks for modifications as proof that the system works.
Indeed, of the 205 requests approved in 2011, the court demanded changes to 176 of them.
Ms. Goitein said the newly released documents show the secret court isn’t a rubber stamp, but “at the end of the day, the bottom line is the court, for whatever reason, feels it must grant the authority the NSA is asking for.”
Also included in the documents were training manuals for spy agency employees. A 2009 document was a 131-page briefing for an NSA Cryptological School course laying out compliance procedures for bulk collection of email and telephone data.
The document goes through constitutional issues and gives a history of government abuse of data collection in the middle of the last century, then outlines powers and limits for those using the programs.
“No matter how inconvenient the rules may seem, if we fail to adhere to them, the next set of rules will be far stricter,” one slide says.
The next slide reads: “There are very few things we cannot accomplish with the existing rules, using the authorities we have and those authorities we can receive.”
The continued revelations about the secret programs have sparked heated debate on Capitol Hill, where a coalition of Democrats and Republicans is trying to reel in the snooping.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who sponsored the Patriot Act that the administration uses as its authority, said the intelligence agencies have gone too far, and he has written a bill to end bulk-data collection.