The power used by the National Security Agency to spy on Americans' phone calls and e-mails was actually blocked during the Bush administration but overturned after Barack Obama took office through a secret court order, the Washington Post reports.
The Obama administration won permission in 2011 from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to spy on Americans without a warrant and to keep the information it collected for six years, according to interviews and declassified documents obtained by the Post.
The NSA has been intercepting more than 250 million Internet communications a year, 91 percent of which came from U.S. companies like Google and Yahoo.
The spying operation was exposed by Edward Snowden, who has since sought asylum in Russia to avoid prosecution for the leak.
Robert S. Litt, general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, confirmed to the newspaper that the Obama administration asked the court to lift the ban so the government could more quickly learn about terrorist plots.
“We wanted to be able to do it,” Litt said, referring to the searching of Americans’ communications without a warrant.
The court ruling also appears to be the basis of cryptic criticism from within Obama's own party on Capitol Hill that the federal government had found a "back-door search loophole" to spy on Americans.
Chief among those critics were Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, who also tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation prohibiting the searches of Americans' communications without a court warrant.
"Our founders laid out a roadmap where Americans’ privacy rights are protected before their communications are seized or searched — not after the fact,” Udall said in a statement to the paper.
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