Looking back at NSA revelations since the Snowden leaks

December 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: This month, President Obama is expected to announce changes in how the National Security Agency conducts surveillance.

Tonight, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner kicks off a series of conversations with lawmakers on the scope of NSA spying and what, if anything, should be done to restrict it.

She starts with some background.

MARGARET WARNER: The boxy, one million-square-foot complex rising from the Utah desert outside Salt Lake City, ringed by heavy security and code-named Bumblehive, is the latest data mining center of the National Security Agency, or NSA.

It’s built to process the vast troves of data being vacuumed up by the NSA worldwide, from phone calls, texts, e-mail, Internet searches and social media. The work of the super-secret spy agency, headquartered just outside Washington, D.C., has grown dramatically since the 9/11 terror attacks.

But the details of its operations, which, by law, focus on foreign intelligence, remained largely a mystery, until early June, with the publication of reams of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Among the most explosive revelations? That the NSA had collected from U.S. phone companies the so-called metadata of millions of calls, the numbers, location and duration involving not only foreigners, but many American citizens.

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The president quickly sought to reassure the American public.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program’s about. By sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER: But the revelations continued to mount over the summer, and in the fall came word that the U.S. was eavesdropping on leaders of allied governments, including the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL, Germany: I have made it clear to the president of the United States that spying on friends is not acceptable at all. I said that when he was in Berlin in July and also yesterday in a telephone call. It’s not just about me, but about every German citizen.

MARGARET WARNER: Days after that, the president announced a review of the NSA’s surveillance activities.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we have seen over the last several years is their capacities continue to develop and expand. And that’s why I’m initiating now a review to make sure that what they’re able to do doesn’t necessarily mean what they should be doing.

MARGARET WARNER: This past Monday, eight U.S. tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook, wrote an open letter to the president calling for reforms.

The letter said the NSA’s aggressive surveillance was trampling on individual rights and was damaging their companies’ business prospects overseas.

The president has two panels now reviewing NSA policy, with their reports and recommendations expected by year’s end.

One of the lawmakers most well-versed in these programs is Michigan Republican Congressman and former FBI agent Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. I spoke with him last night in his office.