Feds declassify documents about telephone metadata collection; newspaper reports on new NSA tool to gather info on your internet use

The U.S. director of national intelligence declassified and released three documents that explain more about the federal government’s collection of phone call and other data in its effort to find and stop terrorist plots.

Two of them are letters to members of Congress at times when the law allowing the “bulk data” was up for reauthorization. The letters are the director’s case as to why the programs are vital to national security. The third is a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as to how the NSA and FBI are to handle the data collected.

The cover letters include some interesting things, such as:

  • Under a header “Key points,” the 2011 letter notes that the programs can gather info on calls and emails “but not the content of” them — and it underlines the phrase.
  • The NSA intercepted calls from a 9/11 hijacker to an al-Qaeda related facility in Yemen but, because they couldn’t determine where he was calling from, they assumed he was overseas. In fact he was in San Diego.
  • The authorities can’t get the type of information collected under these programs in any other way.
  • The programs cover a “critical seam in our defense against terrorism.” And “extensive policies, safeguards and reviews” have been enacted because the potential impact on privacy.

“Technical compliance issues” and “human implementation errors” are admitted in the letters, but they don’t indicate what the result of those mistakes were — one might ask, were private conversations collected, viewed and/or stored somewhere? — and that section is heavily redacted in 2011 letter.

And there’s this breaking news today from the Guardian: “NSA tool collects ‘nearly everything a user does on the internet’” From the story:

A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

So the struggle for to seize the narrative of this ongoing story continues: The director of national intelligence tells us what he told Congress in explaining why the programs are good and must continue, while reports continue to come out about just how much power intelligence agencies have developed to peer into our lives.

Some reaction on Twitter to the Guardian’s latest story:

About Scott Blanchard

Sunday editor at the York (Pa.) Daily Record/Sunday News. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.
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