Revealed: Sprint challenged NSA in 2009

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Years before Edward Snowden pulled back the curtain on the National Security Agency (NSA), the spy agency shared the legal basis behind its phone data collection with Sprint.

Top-secret documents released by the Obama administration on Wednesday show that the phone company asked for details about the contested NSA program in 2009, well before it was made public through Snowden's leaks.

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To avoid a formal legal challenge to the program, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the NSA, allowed the government to discuss the legal basis of the program with the company in 2010. It also extended the time period for Sprint to continue “ongoing discussions” before filing a petition, “in the parties’ mutual interests in avoiding litigation.”

After that, the firm dropped its protests.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence described the exchange as a “robust interaction."

The name of the telephone company was redacted in the court documents, though The Washington Post on Wednesday identified it as Sprint. 

A spokeswoman with the company did not deny that it was behind the questioning, and praised the declassification.

“Sprint believes that substantive legal grounding should be provided when the government requests customer information from carriers. Sprint has a longstanding commitment to protecting our customers’ privacy and will challenge an order for customer information that we don’t think complies with the law,” spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge Walsh said in a statement.

“This is an important part of the debate in how our government balances the need to provide for our national security while protecting civil liberties. Sprint also believes this balance can be achieved without obligating carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes.”

The release of the court documents comes weeks after the administration revealed details about a separate instance in which a phone company had challenged the NSA’s ability to collect the records. 

That company, which was later reported to be Verizon, petitioned the surveillance court in January to “vacate, modify or affirm the current production order” after a federal judge last year said the program was likely unconstitutional. That effort was rejected.

Under the NSA’s phone records program, the agency collects records about who people call, how often and for how long. Defenders of the agency say that it has been crucial to getting tips about terrorist suspects, but it has infuriated civil liberties advocates since unveiled by Snowden last summer.