The U.S. has declassified secret orders that allowed it to engage in massive surveillance of the phone calls and Internet usage of Americans, information about two clandestine programs that former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked last month.
The government released the orders Wednesday, but blacked out key information, such as the names of the telephone companies it sought the records from. The release of the documents appeared to be a new effort by President Barack Obama's administration to support its claim that the data collection is necessary to thwart terrorist attacks on the country.
One document sent to key congressional leaders in 2011 described the National Security Agency surveillance as "some of the most sensitive foreign intelligence collection programs" being conducted by the government. It said telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, the times of the calls and messaging and their dates are being collected, but not the content of the calls and Internet messages.
Even as the government released the information, Britain's Guardian newspaper disclosed details of another clandestine NSA program leaked by Snowden, XKeyscore. The newspaper said the agency boasted that XKeyscore is its "widest-reaching" system, with analysts able to monitor online Internet chats and the browsing history of millions of Internet users.
The scope of the surveillance has surprised many Americans and sparked a debate whether it ought to be curtailed. The House of Representatives narrowly rejected a bid last week to end some of the spying.
But at a hearing on the surveillance Wednesday, the chairman of the Senate's Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, voiced skepticism about the need for the spying.
"The government is already collecting data on millions of innocent Americans on a daily basis, based on a secret legal interpretation of the statute that does not, on its face, intend to authorize this kind of bulk collection," he said. "So what's going to be next? When is enough, is enough?"
Snowden leaked details of the surveillance as he fled first to Hong Kong and then Moscow, where for the last month he has been encamped in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport while seeking asylum in any country where he can avoid extradition to the United States to face pending espionage charges.
He is seeking temporary asylum in Russia while saying he wants to eventually leave for Latin America, where Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered him asylum. But his quick departure from Moscow was blocked when the U.S. revoked his passport, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused a request from Mr. Obama to expel Snowden so he can stand trial in the U.S.
NSA deputy director John Inglis told Leahy that no one has been fired or offered to resign at the agency in the aftermath of Snowden's leaks. Inglis said the NSA is in the midst of investigating how the disclosures occurred and that officials will be held accountable.
Snowden's father, Lon Snowden, told Russian television Wednesday he was grateful that the Kremlin has kept his son safe while it considers his asylum request.
In another interview, the elder Snowden told The Washington Post that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tried to convince him to fly to Moscow to persuade his son to return to the U.S. However, Lon Snowden told the newspaper that the intelligence agency could not guarantee that it could arrange a meeting with his son.
The Post reported the elder Snowden told the FBI that he would "not sit on a tarmac to be an emotional tool" for the agency's benefit.
Snowden told the newspaper that he was "as surprised as the rest of America" when his son exposed top-secret U.S. surveillance plans. He said he did not see any direct signs of a growing disillusionment with the government and its surveillance methods that Edward has spoken about in interviews. He said his son "simply did not talk about his work."