But the FISA court's classified rulings have also been at issue in a year-old lawsuit filed against the government by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties activist organization. In a decision in June, the FISA court ruled that its authority did not prevent the release of the earlier 2011 opinion.
A senior administration official acknowledged Wednesday that some of the documents released were in response to the lawsuit, while others were released voluntarily. The official insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the release with a reporter by name.
The release Wednesday of the FISA opinion, two other 2011 rulings and a secret "white paper" on the NSA's surveillance came less than two weeks after a federal judge in Washington gave government lawyers a time extension in order to decide which materials to declassify. The EFF had been pressing for a summary judgment that would have compelled the government to release the secret FISA rulings, and the government's most recent extension expired Wednesday, the day it released the once-secret FISA court rulings.
"This was all released in response to the court's orders," said Mark Rumold, an EFF attorney involved in the litigation.
The documents were posted later in the day on a new website that went live Wednesday afternoon. The front page of the site said it was "created at the direction of the president of the United States (and) provides immediate, ongoing and direct access to factual information related to the lawful foreign surveillance activities carried out by the U.S. intelligence community."
The site is hosted by the private Internet site Tumblr, a trendy blogging service which is particularly popular among teenagers and young adults.
While the NSA is allowed to keep the metadata — the address or phone number and the duration, but not the content, of the communication — of Americans for up to five years, the court ruled that when it gathered up such large packets of information, they included actual emails between American citizens, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.