Looking back at the Snowden leaks that sparked U.S. surveillance revelations

December 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Much of 2013′s headlines were dominated by Edward Snowden’s revelations about the surveillance programs of the U.S. National Security Agency.

Given the dizzying amount of coverage, it’s hard for many of us to keep track of what we learned about the secretive agency and its activities.

Tonight, we take a look back at the major disclosures of the spying programs, the fallout, and what might be changing as a result.

The NSA was once so secret, even its existence wasn’t officially acknowledged. No more. In June, the U.S. agency was thrust into the international spotlight by Edward Snowden.

EDWARD SNOWDEN, former NSA contractor: Because, even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The former-NSA-contract-employee-turned-fugitive unleashed a flood of leaked material, documenting surveillance of everything from phone calls to Web searches to e-mail.

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EDWARD SNOWDEN: It’s getting to the point you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The first of many reports based on Snowden’s information came in the British newspaper The Guardian. On June 5 this year, it reported on a program known as PRISM. It collects so-called metadata, or data about data, from U.S. phone companies on millions of calls by foreigners and American citizens.

Early on, President Obama said the effort didn’t target U.S. citizens, and initially he defended the NSA’s actions.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: By sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Public and congressional sentiment supported that stance at first, but the leaks kept coming. On October 14, the public learned the NSA collects hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mails, and, 10 days later, that the U.S. has monitored phone calls of allied leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, defended the need to learn foreign intentions, even if it means spying on allies.

LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER, retired National Intelligence Director: It’s one of the first things we learned in intel school in 1963, that this is the fundamental given in the intelligence business.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The very next day, it came out the NSA has collected information from hundreds of millions of user accounts by tapping Google and Yahoo! data centers. That was followed this month by disclosures that the agency also gathers nearly five billion records a day, tracking the whereabouts of cell phones around the world.

In response, eight major U.S. tech companies demanded tighter controls on surveillance. And one week later, a U.S. federal judge ruled the collection of domestic telephone records was probably unconstitutional. Two days after that, a presidential review panel recommended a list of curbs on surveillance.

Last Friday, the president addressed the issue again. But, this time, he suggested changes may be coming.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We need this intelligence. We can’t unilaterally disarm. There are ways we can do it potentially that gives people greater assurance that there are checks and balances, that there is sufficient oversight, sufficient transparency.

The environment has changed in ways that I think require us to take that into account.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The man who started it all, Edward Snowden, resurfaced this week from his asylum in Russia, telling The Washington Post, “I already won.”

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Hi, and merry Christmas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, yesterday, he issued a two-minute video message, warning that today’s children will never know what privacy is.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go. Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Director Clapper and other intelligence officials argue the disclosures let loose by Snowden have done great damage to national security.

But, at year’s end, public pressure is growing on Congress to investigate the surveillance programs and possibly rein them in. For his part, the president says he will make what he calls a pretty definitive statement about all of this in January.