CIO Briefing

Spy Chief Volunteers Numbers on Court-Ordered Surveillance Targets

J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

As part of President Obama’s nod to transparency in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks on domestic surveillance, the nation’s top spy on Thursday announced that the public will soon gain access to an annual count of court-ordered national security letters that permit the National Security Agency to monitor certain electronic communications.

The same day The Washington Post published unprecedented details on the long-secret “black budget” of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement saying that, consistent with Obama’s June transparency directive, “the DNI has determined, with the concurrence of the [Intelligence Community], that going forward the IC will publicly release, on an annual basis, aggregate information concerning compulsory legal process under certain national security authorities.”

Regulated and limited monitoring of domestic telephone and Internet traffic is permitted under the USA Patriot Act. Several members of Congress, after learning of the practice’s reach through news accounts of the leaks from Booz Allen Hamilton NSA contractor Snowden, have introduced bills to rein in the program.

The new numbers -- which will include how many Americans have been targeted in the prior 12 months -- will appear, as did the Thursday statement, on the IC tumblr site www.icontherecord.tumblr.com. The disclosure plan is “designed to provide immediate, ongoing and direct access to factual information related to the lawful foreign surveillance activities carried out by the U.S. Intelligence Community,” Clapper said.

“Our ability to discuss these activities is limited by our need to protect intelligence sources and methods,” he added. The spy court rulings and letters “are an important part of our effort to keep the nation and its citizens safe, and disclosing more detailed information about how they are used and to whom they are directed can obviously help our enemies avoid detection.”

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