A secret court on Friday extended the National Security Agency’s authority to collect and store the phone records of tens of millions of American cellphone customers, the top U.S. intelligence official confirmed.
The decision by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court amounted to a routine renewal of the legal framework for one of the government’s most sensitive and controversial data-collection programs. But it was the first time U.S. officials have publicly acknowledged the step.
The existence of the top-secret collection effort was one of the key revelations in a series of leaks last month by Edward Snowden, the former NSA technical contractor who exposed new details of the spy agency’s surveillance programs.
Snowden provided newspapers with documents describing the NSA’s systematic efforts to collect “metadata” from cellphone records, including phone numbers and information about the time and length of phone calls. Among the documents was an April court order by a FISA judge ordering a Verizon subsidiary to provide the NSA with data on all telephone calls by its customers.
That order lasted 90 days and was set to expire Friday. The statement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not mention Verizon or any other telecommunications company by name, only that the government was seeking the “renewal of the authority to collect telephony metadata in bulk, and that the Court renewed that authority.”
NSA and Obama administration officials say the collected information does not include the content of phone calls, and they say that the program is subject to oversight by congressional committees as well as the FISA court. NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, defending the program before a congressional committee, said such data-collection efforts have helped U.S. spy agencies track terrorists and disrupt plots.
The director’s office said it was publicly acknowledging the court’s action “in light of the significant and continuing public interest in the telephony metadata collection program.”
The statement said administration officials were reviewing whether additional information about the secret program could be publicly disclosed, “consistent with the protection of national security.”
Snowden’s decision to leak the documents has been hailed by civil rights groups who say the 30-year-old systems administrator exposed a massive and unwarranted government violation of privacy. But critics have accused him of undermining U.S. national security.
In an essay published Friday, former CIA director Michael V. Hayden described Snowden as likely “the most costly leaker of American secrets in the history of the Republic.”