White House Declassifies Documents To Justify NSA Program

The Obama administration declassified a series of documents in an effort to justify data collection efforts by the National Security Agency on Wednesday. The move may be an effort to get ahead of efforts in Congress to limit the government's ability to gather information about telephone and Internet communications. Also on Wednesday, The Guardian newspaper leaked more information from former contractor Edward Snowden, showing how vast the U.S. governments abilities are.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Surveillance programs are among the most closely held secrets, but today, more information classified top secret went public. The Obama administration released a series of documents in its effort to justify data collection by the National Security Agency. At the same time, The Guardian newspaper published more documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

They provide new details about what the NSA is capable of doing. All this on a day when members of Congress were talking about whether to modify the government's surveillance powers. We'll have two reports, starting with NPR's Larry Abramson.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Top defenders of these programs were called before the Senate Judiciary Committee essentially to explain why their efforts are constitutional. But the administration attempted to take the offensive by releasing formerly classified documents about these activities just as the committee hearing got started. Deputy Attorney General James Cole says those documents show that even though the government does collect a lot, the power to analyze that data is very limited.

JAMES COLE: That other court order, called the primary order, provides that the government can only search the data if it has reasonable, articulable suspicion that the phone number being searched is associated with certain terrorist organizations.

ABRAMSON: The documents underscore points the government has already made that the NSA faces extensive oversight from a special court, from the Department of Justice and from Congress. Over the years, lawmakers were told repeatedly, in detail, that investigators have been collecting data about millions of Americans. And the Justice Department's James Cole points out Congress has blessed and reblessed the statutes that authorize these efforts.

COLE: Section 215 of the Patriot Act has been renewed several times since the program was initiated, including most recently for an additional four years in 2011.

ABRAMSON: Now, members of Congress are painfully aware of the breadth of the programs they authorized and some finally feel they can challenge these previously secret activities. Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont repeatedly questioned the administration's claims that the surveillance programs had helped foil 54 terrorist plots. National Security Agency Deputy Director John Inglis admitted you could not say that but for this program those plots would have hurt Americans.

JOHN INGLIS: This capability, the collection of metadata, is focused on the homeland. It's focused on detecting plots that cross the foreign to homeland domain.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: But it wasn't foreign in 54 cases.

INGLIS: It was not, sir.

ABRAMSON: Inglis conceded that collecting millions of phone records may have been key to stopping perhaps a dozen domestic terror plots. Many senators agree, the NSA authority to collect domestic calling information seems awfully broad. But few are ready to simply shut down this and another monitoring program as some civil liberties groups have suggested. Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California said that's exactly what Congress must avoid.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I believe, based on what I have seen - and I read intelligence regularly - that we would place this nation in jeopardy if we eliminated these two programs.

ABRAMSON: Feinstein and others are open to greater transparency into surveillance activities. For example, a former judge on a secret surveillance court backed the idea of appointing a public advocate who would argue against the government before that same court. Right now, only the government makes its case. But former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker asked, how would that work?

STEWART BAKER: Who or what is this person supposed to be representing? Are they representing the terrorists? Are they representing the court? Are they representing some abstract interest in civil liberties, or are we just gonna let them decide?

ABRAMSON: Supporters of NSA monitoring ran into a fresh headwind today. The Guardian newspaper revealed yet another leak from Edward Snowden. This one revealed the extent of the agency's technical powers to monitor Internet traffic. Continuing leaks may make it tougher to resist congressional pressure for more oversight and less eavesdropping. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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