Electronic Frontier Foundation forces NSA to reveal surveillance documents

Private files

A freedom of information lawsuit by internet rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has forced the release of hundreds of documents relating to spying carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA) that stretch back at least nine years.

It said the US Justice Department conceded it would release hundreds of pages of documents, including FISA court opinions, related to the government's secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. It said this law has been relied on by the NSA to "mass collect the phone records of millions of innocent Americans."

The government "fought tooth and nail" to the keep pages secret and even argued that it should not be compelled to release the number of pages their opinion ran to.

In a court filing, the Justice Department, responding to a judge's order, said they would make public a host of material that will "total hundreds of pages" by the end of the week, the organisation said in a statement.

The EFF also said in unveiling the documents, the Justice Department "may attempt to portray this release as being done out of the goodness of its heart and as a testament to its commitment to transparency".

"While we applaud the government for finally releasing the opinions, it is not simply a case of magnanimity. The Justice Department is releasing this information because a court has ordered it to do so in response to EFF's FOIA lawsuit, which was filed on the tenth anniversary of the enactment of the Patriot Actnearly two years ago," the organisation said.

It added that the government "fought tooth and nail" to keep pages of interpretations secret and once even argued that it should not be compelled to even release the number of pages their opinion consisted of.

"It was not until the start of the release of documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that the government's position became untenable and the court ordered the government to begin the declassification review process," the EFF said.

Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, the author of the Patriot Act, submitted an amicus brief authored by EFF supporting ACLU's constitutional challenge of the NSA phone collection program that relies on Section 215.

"Even the author of Section 215 thinks the government has twisted and distorted its language to justify something that the law was never supposed to allow. Now, we will finally see that tortured interpretation," the organisation said.

Files to be released include orders and opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued between 2004 and 2011, and other "significant documents, procedures, or legal analyses incorporated into FISC opinions or orders and treated as binding by the Department of Justice or the National Security Agency."

Rene Millman

Rene Millman is a freelance writer and broadcaster who covers cybersecurity, AI, IoT, and the cloud. He also works as a contributing analyst at GigaOm and has previously worked as an analyst for Gartner covering the infrastructure market. He has made numerous television appearances to give his views and expertise on technology trends and companies that affect and shape our lives. You can follow Rene Millman on Twitter.