The Office of the US Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released the documentsWednesday shortly before the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled senior intelligence officials about the controversial surveillance programs and within hours of a report published by the British newspaper The Guardian based on documents leaked by Snowden showing US monitoring of Internet use worldwide.
The ODNI said the document release was done "in the interest of increased transparency.”
Among the documents is a heavily redacted court order requiring a company to hand over enormous amounts of Americans’ telephone records to the US National Security Agency (NSA). The company’s name was blacked out, but US officials have identified it as US telephone carrier Verizon Communications, The Washington Post reported.
In June, The Guardian reported on a document leaked by Snowden showing that the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secretive body known as the FISA court that authorizes such surveillance, had ordered Verizon to provide the NSA with daily information about calls made by the company’s customers.
The other two documents include reports to Congress from 2009 and 2011 on the NSA’s so-called "Bulk Collection Program” under the US Patriot Act that describe the surveillance programs as critical to the government’s fight against terrorists.
Lawmakers chastised the ODNI for releasing the documents just prior to Wednesday’s hearing and delays in opening up classified documents on domestic surveillance programs.
"I don’t want transparency only when it’s convenient to the government,” US Sen. Al Franken said during the hearing, adding that the agency "has known for weeks that this hearing was coming and ODNI released this only in the minutes before this hearing began.”
"That doesn’t engender trust,” Franken said, The Washington Post reported.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse criticized intelligence officials for only releasing the documents after Snowden, who is living in a Moscow airport transit zone while applying for temporary asylum in Russia, forced the government’s hand with his leaks.
"It all came out in response to a leaker,” Whitehouse said, The Associated Press reported. "There was no organized plan for how we rationally declassify this so that the American people can participate in the debate.”
The Guardian report published Wednesday, meanwhile, focuses on documents leaked by Snowden about a top-secret NSA program known as XKeyscore, which enables US intelligence analysts to access Internet activity by users throughout the world after giving a perfunctory justification for the search and without judicial review, according to the newspaper.
Activities that can be monitored include online chats, emails and Internet browsing, including search terms entered by a user, The Guardian reported.
The XKeyscore provides tools for filtering the vast amounts of data harvested by the NSA, thereby allowing an analyst to more efficiently target the research, according to the report.
The NSA documents leaked by Snowden claim that XKeyscore had yielded intelligence leading to the capture of 300 terrorists as of 2008, The Guardian reported.