Feds declassify Bush-era surveillance docs

Federal intelligence officials are declassifying eight documents about the origins of controversial surveillance systems created under former President George W. Bush.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) announced on Saturday that it had declassified the court documents dating from 2007 to this year, which the federal government had used to justify keeping the surveillance program secret. 

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Details about the data collection unveiled by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden have raised alarms about the practice.

The new disclosures are part of a long-running lawsuit from a civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They were ordered earlier this year, after leaks from Snowden revealed the scope of the government’s activities.

Officials with the privacy group said that the release did not signify a major change in government policy.

"One day, hopefully soon, a court with a public, adversarial process will decide the legality of all of the NSA's surveillance programs," Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Mark Rumold said in a statement on Saturday.

"We look forward to continuing that fight and bringing an end to the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' communications and records."

The surveillance efforts were launched beginning on Oct. 4, 2001, according to the ODNI, when Bush authorized some monitoring as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

Bush allowed government officials to collect the contents of some international communications and bulk records about phone and Internet use, known as metadata. Metadata is general information about the communications, like numbers dialed and length of phone calls, but not the content of the communications themselves.

In 2006 and 2007, oversight of some of those activities was transferred to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is tasked with providing a check on the executive branch’s surveillance efforts.

In one of the declassified documents from 2007, former Director of National Intelligence John Michael McConnell asserted that the lawsuit “puts at risk of disclosure information concerning… essential foreign intelligence-gathering activities utilized to meet the extremely serious threat of another terrorist attack on the U.S. Homeland…”

He added, “because the very subject matter of this lawsuit concerns highly classified and critically important foreign intelligence activities, the risk is great that further litigation will lead to the disclosure of information harmful to U.S. national security and, accordingly, that this case should be dismissed.”

Last week, the White House released a 300-page list of recommendations to reform the NSA’s spying activities, developed by a special panel convened by President Obama.

Obama has said he will review the recommendations over the holidays and announce a path forward in January.