FISA court reauthorizes NSA phone surveillance program

Video still by PBS NewsHour

The top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Friday reauthorized the National Security Agency’s program to collect phone records in bulk for 90 more days, the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement.

The NSA telephone metadata program, publicly leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, has been authorized 36 times over the past seven years, a top intelligence official told CNN. These reauthorizations have been required since the program’s inception in 2006.

The decision comes after recent conflicting rulings that debate the legality of the surveillance program. In December, a Washington federal judge called the NSA’s phone surveillance program “almost Orwellian” and unconstitutional.

Days later, a New York federal judge ruled that the program, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, was legal and an effective tool to counter terrorism, adding that it “only works because it collects everything.” The American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday it will appeal that case.

The full DNI statement on the FISA decision is below:

“On several prior occasions, the Director of National Intelligence has declassified information about the telephony metadata collection program under the “business records” provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, 50 U.S.C. Section 1861 (also referred to as “Section 215”), in order to provide the public a more thorough and balanced understanding of the program. Consistent with his prior declassification decisions and in light of the significant and continuing public interest in the telephony metadata collection program, DNI Clapper has decided to declassify and disclose publicly that the government filed an application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking renewal of the authority to collect telephony metadata in bulk, and that the court renewed that authority on January 3, 2014.

It is the administration’s view, consistent with the recent holdings of the United States District Courts for the Southern District of New York and Southern District of California, as well as the findings of 15 judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on 36 separate occasions over the past seven years, that the telephony metadata collection program is lawful. The Department of Justice has filed an appeal of the lone contrary decision issued by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Nevertheless, the Intelligence Community continues to be open to modifications to this program that would provide additional privacy and civil liberty protections while still maintaining its operational benefits. To that end, the Administration is carefully evaluating the recommendation of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies regarding transitioning the program to one in which the data is held by telecommunications companies or a third party. In addition, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will complete a report on this program in the near future. The Administration will review all of these recommendations and consult with Congress and the Intelligence Community to determine if there are ways to achieve our counterterrorism mission in a manner that gives the American people greater confidence.
The Administration is undertaking a declassification review of this most recent court order.”