A secret court just let the NSA keep spying on your phone records. Again.

January 3

(Patrick Semansky/AP)

A secret federal court approved the National Security Agency's bulk collection of telephone metadata for the 36th time on Friday, allowing the agency to continue gathering phone records even as dueling court cases moved forward this week over the controversial program.

The government's requests for reauthorization are typically classified. But in a release, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it was declassifying its latest petition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in light of the public's interest in the metadata program.

Officials also signaled their willingness to cooperate with a presidential review panel that urged significant limits on the NSA's powers in December.

"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," said ODNI spokesperson Shawn Turner.

The disclosure comes in the wake of two divergent legal opinions on NSA spying. Last month, Judge Richard Leon ruled against the government in an unprecedented rebuke of the NSA program. That opinion was later countered in a separate case by that of another judge, William Pauley, last week. Both cases are being appealed — one by the Justice Department, the other by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We continue to believe that the NSA's call-tracking program violates both statutory law and the Constitution," the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer said in a statement to the Post. "While the government has a legitimate interest in tracking the associations of suspected terrorists, tracking those associations does not require the government to subject every citizen to permanent surveillance."

Meanwhile, pressure on the NSA is mounting in Congress. In a letter to the agency Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) demanded to know if intelligence analysts had ever scrutinized U.S. governmental telephone metadata or electronic communications.

"Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other elected officials?" Sanders asked.

The NSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Brian Fung · January 3