WASHINGTON – For years, the government refused to release any detailed breakdown of the numbers and type of surveillance orders issued to U.S. telecom companies for national security purposes. Doing so would disclose classified information that could aid terrorists and other enemies, officials argued.

But late Thursday, the director of national intelligence made an abrupt reversal, saying from now on the government would release annual totals of different types of surveillance orders, including the number of persons targeted.

It’s a mostly symbolic step, analysts say, but it is an effort at transparency that even four months ago would have been unthinkable.

In the wake of disclosures since June 5 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the government finds itself on the defensive — having lost its iron grip on the taps that control the release of information it deems sensitive.

In an effort to respond to increasing public and congressional pressure for more transparency about surveillance programs and policies, the government, at President Obama’s direction, is releasing information that it had steadfastly argued it could not because of the danger to national security.

“Snowden’s disclosures are prompting the intelligence community to try to get out in front of disclosures that they can’t control with their own disclosures that they can,” said Kevin Bankston, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The limits of what the government thinks the public can know have shifted.

Take the Oct. 3, 2011, surveillance court opinion declassified and released last week. In making it public, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. determined “that the harm to national security in these circumstances is outweighed by the public interest.”

A mere five months ago, on April 1, the Justice Department asserted that to release any part of that opinion would “cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States.”

Yet last week, Clapper declassified and released the 85-page ruling, with some redactions. In it, Judge John Bates rebuked the government for misleading the court about the scope of its collection of Internet communications that included “tens of thousands” of Americans’ emails unlawfully collected.

“Whether they want to acknowledge that fact or not, the Snowden disclosures were the dispositive factor in the release of this material,” asserted David Sobel, senior counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which sued the government for the documents’ release. “But we now know that much of this collection is so far-reaching and generalized, that revelation of that fact does not cause the same harm that disclosure of a particular target would.”

Said Sobel: “It’s clear that the withholding of Bates’s opinion went much more to the desire to conceal wrongdoing and avoid embarrassment than it did to protecting legitimate intelligence methods.”

Clapper’s office said the releases last week “reflect the Executive Branch’s continued commitment to making information” available.


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