By Kevin Johnson and Aamer Madhani
WASHINGTON -- The nation's top intelligence official on Wednesday declassified three secret U.S. court opinions and other classified documents that reveal how the National Security Agency intercepted thousands of emails from Americans with no connection to terrorism.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper authorized the release Wednesday and the agency published the documents on a newly created tumblr page dubbed IC on the Record.
The release follows President Obama's call on Clapper in June to release more information about U.S. surveillance programs in response to greater public scrutiny. That scrutiny was triggered by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaking details of previously secret intelligence gathering programs.
Clapper "determined that in the current circumstances, the harm to national security from release of this information is outweighed by the public interest," said a senior U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to brief reporters ahead of the release.
The official argued that the documents reveal "effective self-policing" at the NSA.
"Anytime you have a large and a technologically complex operation that involves thousands of people, there will be mistakes and there will be errors," the official said prior to the public release of the documents.
But some of the documents offer a decidedly more mixed picture of how the NSA operated.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court first learned in 2011 of problems involving "upstream collection" that led to the intelligence community unlawfully scooping up thousands of emails from U.S. accounts over a three-year period. One opinion shows that the NSA reported to the FISA court in 2011 that it inadvertently collected as many as 56,000 Internet communications by Americans with no collection to terrorism.
In the strongly worded 86-page opinion, U.S. District Judge John Bates, who was then the court's chief judge, wrote that the "volume and nature of the information it has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the court had been led to believe".
Overall, according to the opinion, the agency "acquires more than 250 million Internet communications each year" as part of its surveillance effort targeting the communications of non-U.S. citizens operating abroad.
Bates also said the NSA's disclosures about its email collection effort "fundamentally alters the court's understanding of the scope of the collection ... and requires careful re-examination of many of the assessments and presumptions underlying prior approvals.''
"The court is troubled that the government revelations regarding NSA's acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third time in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program,'' Bates wrote in the heavily redacted opinion.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the latest revelation underscores the need for greater oversight of the intelligence community. Blumenthal has proposed legislation calling for a special advocate to represent the public's interest in the secret FISA court proceedings.
"Now, the question is how many other such unconstitutional practices occurred without the court knowing, and without a special advocate to blow the whistle?" Blumenthal said. "This highly intrusive breach highlights the need for reforming the FISA court system to assure greater respect for Constitutional rights, and to ensure that the American people have faith and trust in the institutions charged with keeping us safe."