UPDATE: CNET is reporting that the NSA has admitted it can listen to domestic US phone calls without a court order in a classified briefing on Thursday. Though it's unclear if Nadler's statement was misinterpreted.
Thanks to the leaks from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, we have learned an incredible amount about the secret NSA domestic surveillance program in the past week and a half, most critically that the NSA is collecting all the Verizon phone call records of millions of innocent Americans. In addition, in recent days, the NSA leaks have shown that the Director of National Intelligence and NSA have been misleading or lying to Congress, sparked lawsuits, and inspired new legislation that would curtail the abuses exposed in the news reports.
But equally important is what we have learned in response to the leaks. Ever since the Guardian started publishing its stories, the administration and Congress have been forced into an accountability corner. They've had to reveal even more about the surveillance programs, and we’re finally getting some transparency that the government has been steadfastly blocking for years. This is demonstrable proof that leaks are often vital to democracy and an informed public.
Here's just some of the additional information we've learned since the Guardian started publishing its stories last Wednesday:
Almost immediately after the Guardian published the Verizon court order, multiple Senators admitted the shockingly broad orders have been “routine” for seven years. The Wall Street Journal reported that AT&T; and Sprint received them as well.
A day later, the Director of National Intelligence declassified part of the Internet surveillance PRISM program to show its relationship to section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. NSA chief Keith Alexander also said the agency would declassify more information on how its previously secret surveillance program has “stopped terrorist attacks” next week. (The Associated Press reported last week that the only terrorist attack the government previously claimed the program stopped would have easily been disrupted without the NSA's involvement.)
On Thursday, we learned that Yahoo was the previously unnamed company that challenged collection under the FISA Amendments act as unconstitutional in 2008. Yahoo lost its challenge in the secret FISA court, paving the way for the major tech companies to join the PRISM program shortly after. We knew about the FISA decision before, but the name of the company has been unnecessarily classified for five years now.
Facebook and Microsoft both released aggregate numbers on how many users’ privacy is affected by FISA court orders on Friday, despite previously being barred from doing so by the government. While the government should be forced to release more specific numbers directly, this information has been kept secret for more than five years and is vitally important in understanding the scope of PRISM.
Today, NPR reported that amid pressure surrounding the leaks, the Obama administration is considering declassifying the “primary” FISA court order that allegedly gives the NSA legal authority to collect the phone records of every American, regardless of whether they have ever been suspected of a crime.
The leaks have also put renewed attention on the NSA surveillance program that have led to other news organizations not involved in the original leaks to redouble their investigative reporting around the NSA.
NBC News reported on the 1000% increase in administration’s use of Patriot Act Section 215, explaining that, “the FBI’s use of Section 215 quietly exploded, with virtually no public notice or debate.” And the Associated Press published an important story today, reporting how PRISM is actually “a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort.”
All of these additional disclosures and information would not have been possible without Edward Snowden’s leaks.
Of course, there is still much the government should be forced to reveal. After emerging from a classified briefing this week, Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez says the disclosures in the media are just “the tip of the iceberg” and the American public would be “astounded” at true scope of the NSA’s program.
The government is also still arguing that the FISA court opinion ruling some NSA surveillance unconstitutional should stay secret, and have asked for more time in EFF’s lawsuits challenged the warrantless wiretapping program and demanding the release of the administration’s secret interpretation of the Patriot Act. They’ve been attempting block a judge from ruling on the merits of the cases by invoking various secrecy claims.
Luckily, Glenn Greenwald has promised more revelations in the days and weeks to come. Whether it’s through leaks to the press or official government disclosures, this transparency is long overdue, and we look forward to much, much more.