Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. on Wednesday declassified three documents that showed there have been “a number of technical compliance problems” with the government’s phone-snooping program, as the Obama administration fights to preserve what it says is a critical tool in the war on terror.
The documents lay out the administration’s legal backing of the National Security Agency snooping program, and give some broad details of the operation. One of the documents is one of the periodic the secret court orders authorizing the NSA program.
The move to declassify the documents came as intelligence community officials began to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday morning.
In addition to the court order, the other documents are heavily redacted 2009 and 2011 reports to members of the congressional intelligence committees about the use of the programs, where the intelligence community acknowledges “a number of technical compliance problems” occurred in 2009.
“However, neither DOJ, NSA nor the FISA court has found any intentional or bad-faith violations,” the 2011 document asserts. The following three lines in the document were blacked out.
Officials have previously acknowledged there were some problems, but have said they were all caught through regular internal safeguards and said they took steps to correct them.
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The NSA program, which gathers data such as the time and numbers involved in every phone call made within the U.S., has become a flashpoint since details were leaked earlier this year by government contractor Edward Snowden.
The collection took place, Mr. Snowden revealed, under the business records provision of section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the large suite of anti-terror measures hurriedly passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Sean Joyce, deputy director of the FBI, said the program helped identify a co-conspirator in the 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway system.
“Each and every program tool is valuable. There were gaps before 9/11,” Mr. Joyce said. “We have tried to close those gaps and close those seems and the business records 215 is one of the programs we have closed those seems.”
Under the program, the government collects and stores the data for five years, but it cannot query the data unless it has specific reasons to suspect terrorism.
Intelligence officials said the phone numbers they actually end up looking at are minuscule compared to what they collect.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the intelligence committee and a backer of the program, said she has suggested several changes that could improve the transparency, including releasing more information about the number of phone numbers that are singled out for investigation, and letting the phone companies say more about what the government is requiring them to turn over.
Mrs. Feinstein also said the amount of time the government stores the data could be reduced from 5 years to 2 or 3 years.
“It’s my understanding that the usefulness of it tails off as the years go on,” she said.
Intelligence officials said they believe the tail-off point is at five years, but said they’d be open to studying the data more to see if that’s really the case.
The NSA program has to be reauthorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act secret court every 90 days.
The court document that was declassified on Wednesday is the order that approved the program from April through July 19 of this year. It, too, was heavily redacted, but it lays out some of the court-imposed restrictions on the program.
Among those restrictions are the five-year storage period, a limit of just 22 people who are allowed to approve the “seed” terms that can be used to query the data, and that once approved, the term is effective for 180 days when it involves a U.S. person, and a year for anything else.
Information on what seed questions are allowed to be searched was redacted.