New revelations from former security contractor Edward Snowden that US intelligence agencies have access to a vast online tracking tool came to light today as lawmakers put the secret surveillance programs under greater scrutiny.
The Guardian, citing documents from Mr Snowden, published National Security Agency training materials for the XKeyscore program, which the 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 Guardian said.
Mr Snowden's revelations to media that US intelligence agencies collected data on phone calls and other communications of Americans and foreign citizens as a tool to fight terrorism have sparked uproar in the United States and abroad. Intelligence officials say the programs helped thwart terrorist attacks.
“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.”
Lawmakers have called for greater oversight of the vast surveillance system, which expanded rapidly after the September 11th attacks on the United States in 2001.
Intelligence officials were grilled at a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today about their data gathering, the lack of transparency and security lapses that let Mr Snowden get away with so much data.
Mr Snowden, who has been charged under the US Espionage Act and had his passport revoked, left Hong Kong more than a month ago and is stuck in limbo at a Moscow airport while seeking asylum in Russia, which has refused to extradite him.
"I appreciate it's difficult to talk about classified programs in public settings, but the American people expect and deserve honest answers," Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, said at the hearing.
The latest leak of classified information came as the Director of National Intelligence released three declassified documents in the “interest of increased transparency,” which explained the bulk collection of phone data - one of the secret surveillance programs revealed by Snowden two months ago.
Much of what is contained in the newly declassified documents already has been divulged in public hearings by intelligence officials as opposition to the government’s sweeping data collection programs has been growing.