Senate creating secret encyclopedia of US spy programs

U.S. Government's Phone Tracking May Date Back to Early '90s

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Trying to get a handle on hundreds of sensitive, closely held surveillance programs, a Senate committee is compiling a secret encyclopedia of American intelligence collection. It's part of an effort to improve congressional oversight of the government's sprawling global spying effort.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein launched the review in October 2013, after a leak by former National Security Agency systems administrator Edward Snowden disclosed that the NSA had been eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone. Four months earlier, Snowden had revealed the existence of other programs that vacuumed up Americans' and foreigners' phone call records and electronic communications.

"We're trying right now to look at every intelligence program," Feinstein told The Associated Press. "There are hundreds of programs we have found ... sprinkled all over. Many people in the departments don't even know (they) are going on."

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Senate creating secret encyclopedia of US spy programs
FORT MEADE, MD - MARCH 13: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter delivers remarks to an audience of U.S. Cyber Command troops and National Security Agency employees while visiting the NSA and command headquarters March 13, 2015 in Fort Meade, Maryland. Carter emphasized the importance of military cyber operations by making this his first visit with soliders, sailors, airmen and Marines inside the United States since becoming defense secretary in February 2015. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Sen. Diane Feinstein(D-CA) talks with reporters after making remarks on the release of the Senate CIA report on December, 09, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. (Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Detail of the cufflinks of former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell as he testifies before the House Select Intelligence Committee April 2, 2014 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the topic of 'The Benghazi Talking Points and Michael J. Morell's Role in Shaping the Administration's Narrative.' (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell is sworn in prior to testimony before the House Select Intelligence Committee April 2, 2014 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the topic of 'The Benghazi Talking Points and Michael J. Morell's Role in Shaping the Administration's Narrative.' (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A picture taken on February 25, 2015 shows the logo of Gemalto in Paris. European SIM maker Gemalto said it had suffered hacking attacks that may have been conducted by US and British intelligence agencies but denied any 'massive theft' of encryption keys that could be used to spy on conversations. (Photo credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors gather in the Gemalto NV pavilion at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. The Mobile World Congress, where 1,500 exhibitors converge to discuss the future of wireless communication, is a global showcase for the mobile technology industry and runs from Feb. 25 through Feb. 28. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Gemalto CEO Olivier Piou (C) arrives for a press conference on February 25, 2015 in Paris. European SIM maker Gemalto said it had suffered hacking attacks that may have been conducted by US and British intelligence agencies but denied any 'massive theft' of encryption keys that could be used to spy on conversations. (Photo credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
Gemalto CEO Olivier Piou (C) gives a press conference on February 25, 2015 in Paris. European SIM maker Gemalto said it had suffered hacking attacks that may have been conducted by US and British intelligence agencies but denied any 'massive theft' of encryption keys that could be used to spy on conversations. (Photo credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
Gemalto CEO Olivier Piou shows a cell phone sim card before a press conference on February 25, 2015 in Paris. European SIM maker Gemalto said it had suffered hacking attacks that may have been conducted by US and British intelligence agencies but denied any 'massive theft' of encryption keys that could be used to spy on conversations. (Photo credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Rogers, director of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), speaks during an interview in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015. The hacking attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment is prompting U.S. officials to rethink when the government should help private companies defend against and deter digital assaults, Rogers said. (Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Visitors chat near a reception desk at the Gemalto NV promotional stand on the opening day of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Feb. 27, 2012. The Mobile World Congress, operated by the GSMA, expects 60,000 visitors and 1400 companies to attend the four-day technology industry event which runs Feb. 27 through March 1. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
An employee displays a Gemalto NV M2M quad sim card at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. The Mobile World Congress, where 1,500 exhibitors converge to discuss the future of wireless communication, is a global showcase for the mobile technology industry and runs from Feb. 25 through Feb. 28. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, testifies during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee November 20, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on 'Cybersecurity Threats: The Way Forward.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo is displayed in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008.  (Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
NSA former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden (Above) ponders as he participates via video link from Russia to a parliamentary hearing on the subject of 'Improving the protection of whistleblowers', held by Dutch rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt (Bottom C) on June 23, 2015, at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, northeastern France. Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia, is being sought by Washington which has branded him a hacker and a traitor who endangered lives by revealing the extent of the NSA spying program. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Dutch rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt (Rear C) holds a parliamentary hearing on the subject of 'Improving the protection of whistleblowers', with the participation of NSA former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden via video link from Russia (Above and L) on June 23, 2015, at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, northeastern France. Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia, is being sought by Washington which has branded him a hacker and a traitor who endangered lives by revealing the extent of the NSA spying program. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Feinstein and other lawmakers say they were fully briefed about the most controversial programs leaked by Snowden, the NSA's collection of American phone records and the agency's access to U.S. tech company accounts in targeting foreigners through its PRISM program. Those programs are conducted under acts of Congress, supervised by a secret federal court.

But when it comes to surveillance under Executive Order 12333, which authorizes foreign intelligence collection overseas without a court order, there are so many programs that even the executive branch has trouble keeping track of them, Feinstein said. Many are so sensitive that only a handful of people are authorized to know the details, which complicates the management challenge.

Lawmakers who serve on the intelligence committee sometimes have difficulty making sense of the information they receive, some of which can't be shared even with some of their own staff.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has joked that only one entity in the universe has complete visibility over all the U.S. government's secret intelligence programs - "That's God."

Feinstein, a California Democrat, initially wasn't sure that Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who took her place as chairman of the panel when Republicans took control of the Senate in January, would agree to continue the review. But Burr and Feinstein recently reached an agreement to do so, said Senate aides. They were not authorized to discuss the inner committee workings publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Two executive branch officials who had been detailed to the committee are returning to the executive branch and will not be replaced, the aides said, so the effort will be entirely the work of congressional staff. The project will end in September, the aides said.

Burr declined to comment. His spokeswoman, Rebecca Glover Watkins, said in an email that the committee "is constantly and continuously engaged in oversight of intelligence community activities. It is the very core of what the committee does, day in and day out, and it is a key component of the work done by the committee's professional staff."

Feinstein initiated the review, she said, after she and other lawmakers were taken by surprise by the revelation that the NSA was spying on the leader of a close ally.

At the time, Feinstein said the intelligence committee, which is regularly briefed on spying programs, had not been "satisfactorily informed," about some NSA surveillance. "Therefore our oversight needs to be strengthened and increased."

After that disclosure, President Barack Obama ordered his own review of NSA surveillance that resulted in the termination of some eavesdropping on the leaders of certain unidentified friendly countries.

The review will allow lawmakers to maintain and access information on all the programs, but will avoid creating a single document that amounts to a roadmap to American surveillance, said U.S. officials. They were not authorized to be quoted because some details are classified. Although the Senate intelligence committee has vaults, safes and secure computer networks, officials do not want to risk leaving such a file in the custody of the Senate.

If senators object to any of the surveillance, they can raise the issue in secret with Obama administration officials. They can't force a change, but they can use their influence over legislation, budgets and nominations to press for it.

However, that influence has its limits, as Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall discovered when they sought to warn about some of the NSA collection that Snowden ultimately leaked. They could not make their warnings clear enough without disclosing secrets.

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