Under Section 215, the so-called FISA court permitted the NSA to gather telephone company records that contain numbers that were dialed, the date and time when the call was placed, and the length of the connection. The information passed on to intelligence agencies doesn’t contain the identity of those involved in the connection.
The PRISM program collects content, like email messages, but only involves non-Americans who are thought to be located overseas. The initiatives, an outgrowth of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000, began during the administration of former President George W. Bush.
The court determined, according to the document, that the federal government may access otherwise confidential phone records when the executive branch provides information “giving rise to a reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the numbers could lead to terrorists.
Obama has proved unable to escape the controversy even while pondering military action in Syria. Last week, during a one-day stopover in Stockholm, Sweden, en route to the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, the president attempted to reassure allies about the nation’s surveillance practices.
“I can give assurances to the publics in Europe and around the world that we’re not going around snooping at people’s emails or listening to their phone calls,” Obama said at a news conference. “What we try to do is to target very specifically areas of concern.”
The president did acknowledge in reference to surveillance regulations that “we had to tighten them up” and that technological advances may require further changes. The NSA is looking over procedures with an eye toward developing a proper balance between national security needs and civil liberties.
“There may be situations in which we’re gathering information just because we can that doesn’t help us with our national security but does raise questions in terms of whether we’re tipping over into being too intrusive,” Obama said. The U.S. is consulting with various governments, including the European Union, to determine “their areas of specific concern and trying to align what we do in a way that, I think, alleviates some of the public concerns that people may have.”
Not everyone is satisfied with the steps taken by the administration. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, dispatched a letter to Dr. George Ellard, the NSA’s inspector general, asking him to respond to reports that his office is aware of documented instances showing that NSA personnel intentionally and willfully abused their surveillance authorities.
Grassley didn’t say where the information came from. He further asked that Ellard provide as much information as possible in an unclassified manner.
“The American people are questioning the NSA and the FISA court system,” Grassley said. “Accountability for those who intentionally abused surveillance authorities and greater transparency can help rebuild that trust and ensure that both national security and the Constitution are protected.”
On another front, Facebook and Yahoo, two communications giants, have filed suit in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Monday seeking permission to reveal how frequently the NSA snoops on those who employ their services.
Google and Microsoft filed similar legal actions earlier.
The tech giants are maintaining the revelations would promote transparency and would not infringe on national security.