[5/4/17] A news release posted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on May 2 linked to the ODNI’s annual “Statistical Transparency Report regarding the use of national security authorities for calendar year 2016.” The Circa News organization (owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group) analyzed the data in the report and two days after it was released broke the story that the Obama administration distributed thousands of intelligence reports with the unredacted names of U.S. residents during the 2016 election.
In the interest of maintaining privacy, the government often redacts, or removes, private or sensitive information from reports prior to releasing them for publication.
Circa News noted in its report:
During his final year in office, President Obama’s team significantly expanded efforts to search National Security Agency intercepts for information about Americans, distributing thousands of intelligence reports across government with the unredacted names of U.S. residents during the midst of a divisive 2016 presidential election.
Extracting data from the ODNI report, Circa reported that government officials conducted 30,355 searches in 2016 seeking information about Americans in NSA intercept metadata. This metadata includes telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. These searches amounted to a 27.5 percent increase over the prior year and more than triple the 9,500 such searches that occurred in 2013, the first year that records of the data was kept.
In 2016, government analysts reviewed the actual contents of NSA-intercepted calls and emails for 5,288 Americans, an increase of 13 percent over the prior year and a huge increase over the 198 names searched in 2013.
The NSA produced 3,134 intelligence reports with unredacted names of U.S. residents based on the searches. These reports were distributed across government agencies in 2016, and another 3,354 reports were distributed in 2015. In about half of these reports, U.S. identities were unredacted in the original reports, while in the other half they were restored and included afterwards upon special requests from Obama administration officials.
One of the more significant factors revealed was that among those whose names were made available in the reports released in 2016 or early 2017 were campaign or transition associates of President Trump and members of Congress and their staffers. Circa cited sources with direct knowledge of this information.
Around 20 U.S. officials have the power to unmask a previously redacted name — a practice that was once considered a rare act.
The justification to do so need only be that “the identity of the United States person is necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance,” according to a 2011 document related to Obama’s easing of intelligence rules.