Secret court authorizes NSA collections

A secretive intelligence court on Friday approved the government’s request to continue collecting bulk information about domestic phone calls.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court agreed with the Obama administration that the controversial surveillance program is “lawful."

It said it would allow the government to continue collecting metadata, or details about numbers people dial and the time and duration of their calls. The court does not allow the government to collect the content of the calls. 

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Details about the court are usually kept secret, but the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in a statement on Friday that it was releasing information about the renewal “in light of the significant and continuing public interest” in the program, which was revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden last year.

The court has oversight of intelligence activities and is called to renew the metadata collection program every 90 days. 

Only once has a federal court ever contested the legality of the program. In December, District Court Judge Richard Leon called the data collection “almost Orwellian."

On Friday, the Justice Department filed an appeal to overturn that ruling. 

In addition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, judges on two other courts have upheld the administration's collection of phone metadata.

Before President Obama left Washington for the holiday break, a White House advisory panel delivered a 300-page list of 46 recommendations to reform surveillance by the NSA and other spy agencies.

At the top of the list was a call for private telephone companies, not the federal government, to collect the phone metadata. Under the panel’s advice, federal officials would be able to search that privately held data “when necessary for national security purposes.”

Obama has expressed an openness to that idea and has said he will provide a “pretty definitive statement” once he returns from his Hawaiian holiday break.

In the Friday statement, the ODNI said that 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.”