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The Boston Globe


Intelligence chief details start of NSA phone sweeps

James Clapper

Mark Wilson/Getty Images/File

James Clapper

WASHINGTON — The director of national intelligence on Saturday declassified more documents that show how the National Security Agency was first authorized to start collecting bulk phone and Internet records in the hunt for Al Qaeda terrorists.

James Clapper explained in a statement Saturday that President George W. Bush first authorized the spying in October 2001, as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program, just after the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush disclosed the program in 2005.

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The Terrorist Surveillance Program — which had to be extended every 30 to 60 days by presidential order — was replaced by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires approval by a secret court to conduct the bulk collection.

The disclosures by Clapper are part of the White House’s campaign to justify the NSA surveillance operations, following leaks to the media about the classified programs by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

President Obama hinted Friday that he would consider some changes to the NSA program to address concerns about privacy. His comments came in a week when a federal judge said the bulk collection program was probably unconstitutional, and a presidential advisory panel suggested 46 changes to NSA operations. The panel’s recommendations included forcing the NSA to go to the court for every search of the phone records, and keeping the database in the hands of a third party, not the government.

The judge said there was little evidence any terror plot had been thwarted by the program, known as Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The panel recommended continuing the program, but seeking a court order for each NSA records search. Obama said he would announce his decisions next month.

The documents released Saturday also include legal arguments by former national intelligence directors, including Dennis Blair’s reasons to keep NSA spying methods secret, in an ongoing case filed in 2006 as Shubert v. Bush and now known as Shubert v. Obama.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that filed a similar lawsuit, called it ‘‘a class action on behalf of all Americans against the government.’’

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