The feds issued nearly 20,000 national security letters last year according to the Director of National Intelligence in a report released this morning. The document is being touted as the NSA’s first ever transparency report made available to the public.
The report is extensive. President Obama ordered the U.S. intelligence community to declassify as much information as possible on the extremely sensitive surveillance programs. The goal was to strike a balance between protecting national security investigations and addressing the public’s right to access certain details about intelligence gathering.
The report’s release “is a good thing,” a former intelligence official said in an interview with VentureBeat. “It ups the ante.”
Obama ordered the release after revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of the NSA’s massive global metadata collection programs both inside the States and abroad. The NSA is forbidden by Congress to spy internally, but the law was amended after the terror attacks of 9-11 to allow the agency and federal law enforcement exceptions in the interests of national security.
The word “targets” has multiple meanings, according to the document. The reports identifies targets thus: “For example, “target” could be an individual person, a group, or an organization composed of multiple individuals or a foreign power that possesses or is likely to communicate foreign intelligence information that the U.S. government is authorized to acquire by the above-referenced laws.”
The DNI’s preface to the extensive cache of information is important for context and reads:
“Over the past year, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has declassified and authorized the public release of thousands of pages of documents relating to the use of critical national security authorities. Today, and consistent with the DNI’s directive on August 29, 2013, we are releasing information related to the use of these important tools, and will do so in the future on an annual basis. Accordingly, the DNI has declassified and directed the release of the following information for calendar year 2013.”
The DNI report disclosed that 90,601 intelligence targets were affected by FISA-centric “orders” in the U.S. in 2013 out of the 1,899 “orders” that the intelligence community requested as part of national security investigations.
Also released was a declassified paper delivered to select members of Congress called the Annual Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Report, which contains extensive stats on requests to surveil targeted individuals residing in the U.S. and to search their homes or businesses.
Typically, these requests are made to the super-secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), which generally signs off on the warrants or requests by intelligence and federal law enforcement. In 2012, FISA judges received 1,856 such requests. One such request was withdrawn for undisclosed reasons.
What the report doesn’t include are specific details on the individuals under investigation for potential terror links by the FBI and NSA.
The former intelligence official told VentureBeat that the release keeps the debate about government and the right of the public for answers about domestic spying front and center. Many Americans, the source said, don’t really understand the issues and what the intelligence community is actually doing to protect them.
“This is a two way street. But were still so obsessed about privacy. There are exceptions. You need to strike a balance. People don’t want to trade that up,” the intelligence source told VentureBeat.