Though it was revealed by Edward Snowden in June 2013, the National Security Agency's (NSA) infamous secret program to domestically collect Americans’ e-mail metadata in bulk technically ended in December 2011. Or so we thought. A new document obtained through a lawsuit filed by The New York Times confirms that this program effectively continued under the authority of different government programs with less scrutiny from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
The bulk electronic communications metadata program was initially authorized by the government under the Pen Register and Trap and Trace (PRTT) provision, also known as Section 402 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Times’ document, a previously-top secret National Security Agency Inspector General (NSA IG) report from January 2007, contains a lot of intelligence jargon but crucially notes: "Other authorities can satisfy certain foreign intelligence requirements that the PRTT program was designed to meet."
While such a theory had been pushed previously by some national security watchers, including Marcy Wheeler, this admission had yet to be officially confirmed. Wheeler argued that not only do the post-PRTT programs achieve the same goal, but she believed they were in fact more expansive than what was previously allowed.
The bulk metadata program, which began in secret under authorization from the FISC in 2004, allowed the NSA to collect all domestic e-mail metadata including to, from, date, and time. When this program was revealed by the Snowden leaks in The Guardian, the government said that the PRTT program had been shut down 18 months earlier for "operational and resource reasons."
It was believed that the FISC imposed a number of restrictions on the PRTT program, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) itself.