Why the WH says NSA surveillance 'is lawful'

The Obama administration released three previously top secret documents authorizing it to collect people’s phone records.

Late on Wednesday, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) released its January order to renew the government’s phone records collection program as well as the recent request and approval to change the programs. The versions of the documents made public had some secret information redacted.

The disclosure is part of President Obama’s initiative to reform the government surveillance by releasing as many details as possible about the program, among other changes.

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The National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of phone records has emerged as one of the most controversial programs revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden. The program needs to be reauthorized by the FISC every 90 days, and was last renewed in January.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a joint statement that the January order “re-affirms” that collecting the phone call data “is lawful.”

In a speech last month, Obama also announced administrative changes to limit the number of phone numbers officials can search to those twice removed from a suspect, instead of the previous three, and required them to obtain a court order before checking the system, except for emergency cases. 

The FISC approved that request this month. In the newly declassified document, Judge Reggie Walton wrote that he “sees nothing in the language of the [Patriot] Act that would preclude it from accepting the Executive Branch’s invitation to assume responsibility for making [reasonable particularly suspicion] determinations.”

“This role in fact parallels the FISC’s core judicial function of determining whether applications for authority to conduct electronic surveillance or physical search are supported by probable cause,” he added.

Obama asked Holder and Clapper to develop additional possible reforms by the time the NSA’s phone records programs needs to be reauthorized in March.