RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
The secret court that oversees the NSA's controversial surveillance programs is now making some of its work more transparent. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates behind closed doors, has taken a lot of heat for how it makes its decisions. On Friday, the special court released a new legal opinion that reauthorizes the NSA program that collects information about Americans' phone calls. Meanwhile, we've learned that the agency has been collecting email address and contact and contact lists.
With so much news, some of it leaked and some of it not, it is easy to be confused about what the NSA is up to. We've been collecting your questions about the NSA programs. NPR's Tom Gjelten is here now to help us sort them out. Hey, Tom.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So let's begin with a broad question. This one from Ashley Reed. She's a student at Middle Tennessee State University.
ASHLEY REED: Do you believe that the intentions of the NSA were aimed at distorting American liberty through state sponsored espionage? Or were they simply utilizing the technological advances of the modern age, trying to safeguard American interests and avoid the possible chance of another 9/11?
GJELTEN: The programs came after 9/11 and justification was to prevent another 9/11. I don't think anyone is saying the NSA set out deliberately to take away our civil liberties. But intentions are one thing and results are another. We have learned the NSA has a huge surveillance operation. There clearly has been a cost to privacy. The question is whether the benefits in terms of safeguarding the nation justify this cost to our privacy. That's the debate we're having.
MARTIN: OK. And here's a question we got via email. This is from Stephen Anderson of Charlotte North Carolina. And he asks, quote, "From what we have learned in the leaked material, has the NSA been lying Congress about its programs? And if so, is that illegal?"
GJELTEN: Now, this is a complicated question. There was a statement made at a hearing last March. It actually did not come from the NSA but rather James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence. He oversees the NSA. And he was asked if the NSA collects, quote, "any type of data at all on Americans," and Clapper said no. But we now know that the NSA at that time was, in fact, collecting what's called metadata on Americans' phone calls. Not the contents; they weren't actually monitoring phone calls. But they were collecting lists of which telephone numbers were calling which numbers.
So the NSA was collecting some data on Americans. What General Clapper said was not true, as he himself acknowledged later.
MARTIN: And was it illegal?
GJELTEN: Well, he wasn't under oath, so he did not commit perjury. But you know what? Making false statements to Congress, even if you're not under oath, is a crime. You do have to show the false statements were made willfully. That would be hard to prove
MARTIN: OK. We're going to move now to a question from Glen Wheeler of Springfield Illinois.
GLEN WHEELER: Since we aren't just spying on American citizens, we've actually been spying on people all over the world, are citizens in other countries more concerned about this than Americans are?
MARTIN: All right, let's break that one apart, Tom. First, is the NSA spying on American citizens?
GJELTEN: We have not learned that. We do know the NSA has the capability to spy on us, read our emails, monitor our phone calls. But generally, where that has happened, based on what has come out, it seems to have been inadvertent. Of course, the concern, historically speaking, is once a government has that spying capability, it's a dangerous situation.
MARTIN: And to Glen's question, how do people in other countries feel about this?
GJELTEN: Well, in fact, they are more concerned about these programs than Americans are, and for good reason. Because the Fourth Amendment doesn't apply overseas. The NSA is basically free to spy on foreigners. They say they only do it if there's a clear foreign intelligence purpose, but there's no court overseeing what they do. So, yes, people in other countries are upset.
Edward Snowden, the guy that leaked all this stuff, was actually nominated for a human rights prize at the European Parliament.
MARTIN: And on this whole question of the NSA spying overseas, we heard from Sabina Khan. She's a Pakistani-American who lives in Sacramento California. And she wrote to say she's concerned that all her phone calls, emails, and text messages between her and her family and friends back in Pakistan are being recorded. And she finds that very disturbing. What can you say to her?
GJELTEN: We can reassure Sabina. She's what's called a U.S. person, meaning either a U.S. citizen or someone physically in the United States. And communications involving U.S. persons cannot be monitored or recorded without a court order, even if she is talking to people in Pakistan. That's the law.
MARTIN: OK, one last question. This one from Erik Gunther of Commerce, Texas.
ERIK GUNTHER: I was really worried when I heard about the NSA having the secret courts. And I was wondering who watches the court? Is there any other body or outside person that watches the court to see what they're actually doing?
GJELTEN: OK, the court Erik referring to is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It was set up by Congress to oversee NSA surveillance. They do deliberate in secret and their opinions are secret, but it's not really a secret court. But the question who oversees the overseers is one that does concern many members of Congress.
You know, Rachel, one problem with the surveillance court is that the programs it oversees are highly technical, and the judges really aren't qualified to get into all that finer points of technology. They have a tough time understanding exactly what the government is doing. It was one thing when this court was set up back in the '70s. That was an era of basically just of wiretapping. It's all new technology now. There are indeed a lot of people who do think this oversight process needs to be revamped.
MARTIN: So, any reforms in the works right now?
GJELTEN: Well, one possibility is that the court proceedings could be changed so that it becomes an adversarial venue. Normally, a court settles disputes between two sides. Right now, you only have a government represented and the court just has to decide if the government is lying. There is talk of introducing some kind of adversarial procedure here where someone could actually challenge the government and then the court could adjudicate.
MARTIN: NPR's Tom Gjelten, answering some of your questions about NSA surveillance programs. Thanks so much, Tom.
GJELTEN: You bet, Rachel.