The Obama administration on Wednesday made public a previously classified order directing Verizon Communications to hand over a trove of Americans' phone records just ahead of a Senate hearing scrutinizing the sweeping government surveillance programs.
The order, issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, is part of administration-wide effort to disclose more information about the controversial surveillance programs to help mollify congressional anger and public outrage over the potential breach of individual privacy.
Former defense contractor Edward Snowden in June leaked classified documents revealing the National Security Agency's dragnet of phone and internet data, information officials said must be tracked to thwart potential terrorist threats. As part of that effort, Verizon was ordered to turn over phone records, including phone numbers dialed and the length of the calls.
With Congress threatening to curtail funding for NSA surveillance programs, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it made the Verizon order public "in the interest of increased transparency."
A bipartisan bill that would have cut off funding for the NSA's phone surveillance program was only narrowing defeated in the House last week. The White House and the intelligence community as well as top Republicans and Democrats on both the House and Senate intelligence committees opposed the measure, authored by libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. But the bill still fell just seven votes short of passing.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has pressed the intelligence community for answers and introduced a bill to try to raise privacy standards for the programs.
Supporters of the program insist that the information gathered is of a limited scope and doesn't breach anyone's privacy. ODNI general counsel Sean Joyce told lawmakers that the NSA must have "a reasonable articulable suspicion that the number being searched" is associated with a terrorist. And Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said access to the data is limited to just 22 NSA analysts who are "trained and vetted analysts at the NSA."
"If the numbers are run and if it looks like there's a problem, a report is made to the FBI and they must get a probably cause warrant," she said.
Intelligence officials assured lawmakers that they can't actually listen to Americans' phone conversations unless they have a warrant and probable cause.
Feinstein said the programs could be altered to give the public greater confidence that their privacy is protected, but the programs should not be cut.
"We would place this nation in jeopardy if we eliminated these two programs," she said.