According to a new report from The Washington Post, President Obama's administration sought to relax restrictions on National Security Agency surveillance in 2011, winning permission from a surveillance court to deliberately search for the intercepted phone calls and emails of citizens without a warrant. The court also reportedly extended the length of time that the NSA is permitted to store intercepted US communications to six years, up from five, and even longer under "special circumstances."
The 2011 decision overturns a 2008 ban on warrantless searches of the NSA's databases containing email and phone call records of American citizens and legal residents.
The Post's report comes as the Obama administration and the US intelligence community have made a concerted effort to reassure American citizens that surveillance programs strike the right balance between national security needs and respect for civil liberties.
As part of that PR effort the Obama administration and the US intelligence community declassified a secret court order in August, revealing that the NSA regularly collected thousands of emails and other communications each year belonging to US citizens with no connection to international terrorism. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, author of the declassified opinion, scrutinized the program and required the NSA to make procedural changes to protect civil liberties. But the restrictions were related to the agency's "upstream" collection methods, which pull data directly from internet cables, and not "downstream" collection from companies like Google and Yahoo, which the relaxed rules detailed by today's report from the Post concern.
Government officials confirmed to the Post that the administration had requested the lift on the ban, but would not acknowledge how many warrantless searches have been performed. According to the declassified FISA court order released in August, the NSA uses its PRISM data collection program to "acquire" more than 200 million "internet communications" each year, which largely come from companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.