Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, 29, who unmasked himself as the source behind the PRISM and Verizon revelations, said he hoped for a systematic debate about the “danger to our freedom and way of life” posed by a surveillance apparatus “kept in check by nothing more than policy.”
For well over a week, he has had his wish. Startling disclosures have poured out of the nation’s largest and arguably tightest-lipped spy agency at an unprecedented pace. Snowden’s disclosures have opened a national conversation about the limits of secret surveillance in a free society and an outcry overseas against U.S. espionage.
The debate has focused on two of the four U.S.-based collection programs: PRISM, for Internet content, and the comprehensive collection of telephone call records, foreign and domestic, that the Guardian revealed by posting a classified order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to Verizon Business Services.
The Post has learned that similar orders have been renewed every three months for other large U.S. phone companies, including Bell South and AT&T, since May 24, 2006. On that day, the surveillance court made a fundamental shift in its approach to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which permits the FBI to compel production of “business records” that are relevant to a particular terrorism investigation and to share those in some circumstances with the NSA. Henceforth, the court ruled, it would define the relevant business records as the entirety of a telephone company’s call database.
The Bush administration, by then, had been taking “bulk metadata” from the phone companies under voluntary agreements for more than four years. The volume of information overwhelmed the MAINWAY database, according to a classified report from the NSA inspector general in 2009. The agency spent $146 million in supplemental counterterrorism funds to buy new hardware and contract support — and to make unspecified payments to the phone companies for “collaborative partnerships.”
When the New York Times revealed the warrantless surveillance of voice calls, in December 2005, the telephone companies got nervous. One of them, unnamed in the report, approached the NSA with a request. Rather than volunteer the data, at a price, the “provider preferred to be compelled to do so by a court order,” the report said. Other companies followed suit. The surveillance court order that recast the meaning of business records “essentially gave NSA the same authority to collect bulk telephony metadata from business records that it had” under Bush’s asserted authority alone.