New Snowden leak upstages US

Updated: 2013-08-02 10:06

(Agencies/China Daily)

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Opposition to NSA's surveillance program gains traction in Congress

New revelations from Edward Snowden that United States intelligence agencies have access to a vast online tracking tool came to light on Wednesday, as lawmakers put the secret surveillance programs under greater scrutiny.

The Guardian, citing documents from Snowden, published US National Security Agency training materials for the XKeyscore program, which the British newspaper described as the NSA's widest-reaching system that covers "nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet".

Intelligence analysts can conduct surveillance through XKeyscore by filling in an on-screen form giving only a "broad justification" for the search and no review by a court or NSA staff, the newspaper said.

Intelligence officials insist the surveillance programs helped thwart terrorist attacks and saved many US lives.

"The implication that NSA's collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false," the agency said in a statement in response to the Guardian's new report, calling XKeyscore part of "NSA's lawful foreign signals intelligence collection system".

Opposition to the sweeping surveillance has been gaining traction in the US Congress, despite intense lobbying on the intelligence agencies' behalf from the Obama administration, congressional leaders and members of the House of Representatives and Senate Intelligence Committees.

Congress legislation

US President Barack Obama has scheduled a meeting for Thursday with Republican and Democratic lawmakers to discuss programs under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a White House official said on Wednesday.

Intelligence officials were grilled at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday about their data gathering, the lack of transparency and security lapses that let Snowden get away with so much information.

Two members of the committee, Senators Al Franken and Richard Blumenthal, said they would introduce legislation on Thursday to force the Obama administration to provide more information about the data collection programs, including how many US citizens' records were reviewed by federal agents.

"The government has to give proper weight to both keeping the US safe from terrorists and protecting people's privacy," Franken said.

Senior intelligence officials at the hearing said they were open to making some changes in the system.

Keith Alexander, the NSA director, jousted with hecklers at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday as he defended the agency's surveillance programs before a crowd of cybersecurity experts and hackers.

Last week, the House defeated by a narrow 217-205 vote a bill that would have cut funding of the NSA program that collects the phone records.

Snowden, who has been charged under the US Espionage Act and had his passport revoked, left Hong Kong more than a month ago and had been stuck in limbo at a Moscow airport until recently receiving asylum in Russia.

Declassified documents

"If a 29-year-old school dropout could come in and take out massive amounts of data, it's obvious there weren't adequate controls," Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, said at the hearing. "Has anybody been fired?"

John Inglis, the NSA's deputy director, said no one had been dismissed and no one had offered to resign.

The director of national intelligence released three declassified documents on Wednesday in the "interest of increased transparency". They explained the bulk collection of phone data - one of the secret programs revealed by Snowden.

Much of what is in the newly declassified documents has already been divulged in public hearings by intelligence officials. The documents included 2009 and 2011 reports on the NSA's "Bulk Collection Program", carried out under the US Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism legislation passed shortly after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.

They also included an April 2013 order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which directed communications company Verizon to hand over data from millions of US citizens' telephone calls. The declassified documents said the data would only be used when needed for authorized searches.