NSA Releases 1,000 Declassified Documents

The director of the National Intelligence has released another set of previously secret documents about NSA surveillance programs. The released followed a freedom of information request by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The documents, many heavily redacted, reveal more about NSA programs.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Another set of previously secret documents about NSA's surveillance programs went public overnight. This time they weren't leaked - the director of National Intelligence released them. The government had to; it was responding to a Freedom of Information request by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The documents, many of which were heavily redacted, reveal more about NSA programs and the efforts to keep them within the bounds of the law. NPR Justice Department correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us now to explain what's most important in these new documents. Good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, they disclose, I gather, information about an NSA program involving emails. We've heard a lot about the collection of emails. What's new and different in this release?

JOHNSON: So, Renee, these documents include - these hundreds of pages of documents include, apparently for the first time, the court opinion that authorized or approved this email program, although the date of this authorization has been redacted. The reason why this is important, Renee, is because this was a program that collected metadata on emails of American citizens, to, from, and the CC line.

And it's very similar to the phone record collection program for Americans we've been hearing so much about. This program is kind of a cousin to that program. It was done under a different part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act law, but some of the legal underpinnings are the same. The notion that in order to collect these records the government needed to demonstrate there was relevance to foreign terror plots and that these email metadata information did not cover Fourth Amendment protection.

In other words, Americans had no reasonable expectation of privacy from these materials.

MONTAGNE: So the documents reveal that this NSA email collection program failed to comply with the law in some cases. What were those violations?

JOHNSON: So from the very beginning, Renee, this opinion by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly here in Washington D.C. indicated even as she was approving this program that it was sweeping in its collection and that there was a potential for abuse. And the second key document that was disclosed overnight was an opinion by Judge John Bates also on this Foreign Surveillance Act court that indicated, in fact, the NSA almost continuously over-collecting and exceeding its authority that the court had given it.

In other materials that were leaked overnight, we found a few things, a few examples. They were disseminating information on American citizens outside the NSA, which they were not supposed to do unless there was some evidence or suspicion of foreign intelligence plots. And in fact, the U.S. - the director of National Intelligence indicated the U.S. discontinued this program in 2011 because it just did not seem to be operating properly.

There was a history of misstatements and the NSA was just over-collecting like mad.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, Carrie, just finally and briefly, what do the documents reveal about how the court and others conduct oversight of NSA?

JOHNSON: You know, it reveals how very complicated these programs are. In many cases, some of the NSA personnel did not understand the legal authority that they had and they were exceeding it. In other cases, the judges were wrestling with how dense and technical these issues were and that continues, we think, up to this day.

MONTAGNE: Carrie, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR Justice Department correspondent Carrie Johnson.

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