WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New revelations from former security contractor Edward Snowden that U.S. intelligence agencies have access to a vast online tracking tool came to light on Wednesday as lawmakers put the secret surveillance programs under greater scrutiny.
The Guardian, citing documents from 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.
Snowden's revelations to media that U.S. 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 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
Intelligence officials were grilled at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday about their data gathering, the lack of transparency and security lapses that let Snowden get away with so much data.
Snowden, who has been charged under the U.S. 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.
PHONE RECORDS COLLECTED
The documents released on Wednesday included 2009 and 2011 reports on the NSA's "Bulk Collection Program," carried out under the U.S. Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism legislation passed shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
They also included an April 2013 order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which directed communications company Verizon to hand over data from millions of Americans' telephone calls and described how that data should be stored and accessed.
The declassified documents said the telephone and email data would only be used when needed for authorized searches.
"Although the programs collect a large amount of information, the vast majority of that information is never reviewed by anyone in the government, because the information is not responsive to the limited queries that are authorized for intelligence purposes," the 2009 report said.
But the top secret NSA slideshow from 2008, posted by the Guardian on its website, showed that XKeyscore program allowed analysts to access databases that collect and index online activity around the world, including searching for email addresses, extracted files, phone numbers or chat activity.
The slides did not address how analysts would get permission to use the tool on American targets. U.S. law requires specific warrants for surveillance of U.S. citizens but no warrant is required for communication involving foreigners.
(Writing by Deborah Charles; Editing by Alistair Bell, Christopher Wilson and Paul Simao)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp