The court that oversees US surveillance has ordered the government to review for declassification a set of secret rulings about the National Security Agency's bulk trawls of Americans' phone records, acknowledging that disclosures by the whistleblower Edward Snowden had triggered an important public debate.
The Fisa court ordered the Justice Department to identify the court's own rulings after May 2011 that concern a section of the Patriot Act used by the NSA to justify its mass database of American phone data. The ruling was a significant step towards their publication.
It is the second time in a week that a US court has ordered the disclosure of secret intelligence rulings. On Tuesday, a federal court in New York compelled the government to declassify numerous documents that revealed substantial tension between federal authorities and the surveillance court over the years.
On Thursday, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, conceded that the NSA is likely to lose at least some of its broad powers to collect data on Americans.
He acknowledged that Snowden's disclosures had prompted a necessary debate: "As loath as I am to give any credit to what's happened here, I think it's clear that some of the conversations this has generated, some of the debate, actually needed to happen.