US declassifies details of NSA phone call surveillance program

The Obama administration declassified several documents on Wednesday related to the National Security Agency's sweeping phone surveillance program.

The documents, released by the director of national intelligence, provide new details about how the NSA collects records on virtually all phone calls within the United States.

The existence of the program was first revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden this spring.

The declassification of the documents comes as the administration is trying to tamp down outrage on Capitol Hill and with the public over the scope of the surveillance programs.

On Wednesday, intelligence officials also testified about the programs at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. But the latest leak from Snowden, which purported to show how analysts search databases of people's email, online chats and browsing histories without prior authorization, threatened to undermine the government's message that the programs have sufficient privacy safeguards.

One of the declassified documents is a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court order to an unnamed company, requiring it to produce "all call detail records" on an "ongoing daily basis." The order covers calls between the United States and abroad and calls wholly within the U.S.

The records include phone numbers, call times and call duration, but not the contents of the conversations.

The court order allows the NSA to examine a caller's history only if officials determine that there are “facts giving rise to a reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the number is associated with terrorism.

Only authorized NSA officials are allowed to access the phone data, and the data must be destroyed within five years.

Although the court does not need to approve each query of the phone database, the NSA is required to submit a report on its activities to the court every 30 days.

Civil liberties advocates said the documents show that Congress needs to rein in the NSA.

"The order shows that the NSA use of the telephone calling information proceeds on autopilot — without FISA Court intervention — once a broad order is issued. The government, not the FISA Court, decides whether a particular person's phone number, and the phone numbers of everyone associated with that person, will be investigated through queries of this vast database," Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement. 

“It is time to close down this disturbing process that clearly puts privacy and civil liberties on the back burner,” she added.