WASHINGTON, District of Columbia (AFP) - A secret US court has renewed the government's authority to carry out a controversial phone surveillance programme exposed by fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.
The panel's decision, made public on Friday in an unprecedented move, extends the program, which affects millions of Americans, by three months, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, said in a statement.
"In light of the significant and continuing public interest in the telephony metadata collection programme, the DNI (Director of National Intelligence) has decided to declassify and disclose publicly that the government filed an application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking renewal of the authority to collect telephony metadata in bulk, and that the court renewed that authority," it said.
Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, sparked outrage in early June when he divulged to The Guardian newspaper that, under a secret court order, Washington was collecting phone records of millions of US customers of phone company Verizon.
The telephone metadata collection programme was created by the 2001 Patriot Act in the context of fighting terrorism.
Set up in 1978 after the Watergate scandal, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court consists of eleven judges nominated for seven years by the president and the Supreme Court.
Administration officials have said the government was conducting only a relatively small number of searches through the phone data, despite the large volume of telephone records collected, and that it was barred from looking for any information on crimes unrelated to terror threats.
But lawmakers last week blasted US intelligence agencies for trampling on privacy rights and vowed to impose limits on the government's authority to scoop up phone records.
A bipartisan group of senators has also introduced a bill urging President Barack Obama's administration to declassify key FISA court orders and White House interpretations of post-9/11 intelligence-related law.
"The administration is undertaking a careful and thorough review of whether and to what extent additional information or documents pertaining to this programme may be declassified, consistent with the protection of national security," the ODNI statement said.
Snowden, whose passport has been revoked by Washington, has been marooned in Moscow airport's transit zone for the past three weeks, as he seeks asylum in a bid to evade US espionage charges for his leaks.