A government spy agency collected vast amounts of raw data on Internet communications -- involving Americans as well as foreigners -- over a 10-year period that included more than half of President Barack Obama's first term, according to a new report based on secret documents.

Civil liberties advocates said Thursday the new revelations paint a broad picture of government surveillance that adds to their concern over previous disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about the government's ongoing access to telephone records and specific types of Internet traffic.

"The revelations keep building," said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's national security project, who called the reports "extremely troubling."

Thursday's report in the Guardian, a British newspaper that published earlier stories based on leaks from Snowden, described a program that collected so-called email metadata, or logs that show the senders, recipients and Internet addresses of the computers they used. Documents posted on the newspaper's website show the government also had narrower access to the actual content of Internet communications by suspected terrorists.

While government attorneys have argued that collecting metadata isn't intrusive and doesn't violate constitutional protections, Abdo added, "Sometimes who we call or email is every bit as private and sensitive as what we say."


Advertisement

The Obama administration says the collection of bulk metadata ended in 2011, although the Guardian said documents show the NSA continues to monitor foreign Internet traffic that includes communications with Americans.

Many details of the metadata surveillance effort are still unclear, including the mechanics of how the information was obtained. But according to government documents posted on the Guardian's website, some telecommunications companies voluntarily cooperated with the U.S. effort, while others balked or raised legal concerns.

Those companies aren't identified. Another government document, leaked by Snowden earlier this month, described an apparently separate government program known as Prism that obtained information from major Internet companies such as Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), Facebook and Yahoo (YHOO).

But the companies described in the new document are probably telephone or cable communications providers, according to Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has waged a years-long legal battle to uncover government data-gathering programs. Opsahl said he believes the surveillance described in the Guardian's latest report involves tapping directly into the fiber cables that carry phone calls and Internet traffic around the world.

The data-gathering program was started under President George W. Bush just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the Guardian, which cited documents including a 2009 draft report from the NSA's Inspector General and a 2007 Justice Department memo.

It was originally part of an effort code-named "Stellar Wind" that operated without court authorization. But after senior Justice Department officials raised objections, the program was reconstituted with approval from the secretive U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The New York Times disclosed the program's existence in late 2005, and there have been hints that it was ongoing, Opsahl said, but the Guardian report adds more information.

"We have had for some time a lot of indications that suggested a massive surveillance program," Opsahl added, "but now we're seeing it in black and white, with documentation that puts a lot of detail on this."

The program initially focused on collecting records of phone and email communications between foreigners or at least one person located outside the United States, because of federal laws against spying on Americans. But as intelligence analysts sought to trace the chain of communications by foreign terror suspects, they won authorization to pursue more extensive metadata -- including contacts with Americans and, potentially, their contacts with other Americans.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said his agency ended the program in 2011 because "it wasn't meeting what we needed and we thought we could better protect civil liberties and privacy by doing away with it."

Opsahl said the Electronic Frontier Foundation believes the intelligence court raised constitutional concerns about the program in a secret opinion issued that year.

Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.