At 5 p.m. Eastern time today, the only publicly-seen request from the FBI to collect metadata on phone records — the one published by The Guardian after being leaked by Edward Snowden — was set to expire. In case there was any doubt as to whether or not that expiration meant the end of such data collection, the office of the Director of National Intelligence made it clear: The FBI sought renewal, and it was granted.
Over the course of the Snowden revelations, details about the order have leaked out. Renewed every ninety days, there was little question that the request — filed by the FBI for the NSA to scoop up information about phone calls — was not a unique document. Initial speculation that the order might be specific to the Boston bombings, it having been filed shortly after the incident, rapidly dissipated. It quickly became clear instead that the data collection was rote and pervasive. The time limit was more of an alarm clock than a countdown.
Section of the leaked court order.
The DNI made that clear in a statement shortly before the alarm clock rang. When the first order leaked, the Director James Clapper declassified some details of the data collection. The Friday afternoon announcement was a continuation of that.
Consistent with his prior declassification decision and in light of the significant and continuing public interest in the telephony metadata collection program, the DNI has decided to declassify and disclose publicly that the Government filed an application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking renewal of the authority to collect telephony metadata in bulk, and that the Court renewed that authority.
The statement was unexpected. It was released, the DNI suggested, "in order to provide the public with a more thorough and balanced understanding of the program." The statement also indicated that the office was assessing "whether and to what extent additional information or documents pertaining to this program may be declassified."
There are three ways to read this, none of which is mutually exclusive. The first is to be impressed with the DNI's forthrightness on the subject. The second is to consider the extent to which the release of information about the existence of the program actually harmed national security. After all, the DNI could just as easily have suggested that the program may or may not still be in existence, perhaps affording to it some of the anonymity once so critical to its successful operation. The third is to simply accept that the pervasive collection of information about every call you make and receive will sit on a server for the next five years.
Earlier this week, the DNI's Robert Litt was asked during Congressional testimony if his office really thought it could hide the expansive program. "Well," he replied, "we tried." They've now officially given up trying.
Photo: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. (AP)