WASHINGTON -- Government agents may only access a National Security Agency database of all domestic phone calls in the United States when an executive branch official decides there is a "reasonable, articulable suspicion" that a phone number is associated with terrorism, according to a formerly secret court order revealed Wednesday.

An April ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was declassified by the Obama administration just ahead of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act programs.

The so-called telephone metadata can only be accessed by "authorized personnel who have received appropriate and adequate training," according to the court order. The April 25 order, signed by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, served as the basis for a separate order, disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that forced a Verizon subsidiary to turn over its phone logs. That authorization expired on July 19, but has since been renewed.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) criticized the executive branch for releasing the order just ahead of the Wednesday morning hearing.

"An hour ago, ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] declassified a FISA court order under Section 215 -- that's a good thing -- but ODNI has known for weeks that this hearing was coming and yet ODNI releases this material just a few minutes before the hearing began," Franken said during the hearing. "You know, again, it's a step forward, but you get the feeling when it's ad hoc transparency, that doesn't engender trust, I don't think."

Robert S. Litt, general counsel for ODNI, testified that there was a discussion within the executive branch on Tuesday about whether they should release the documents the next day.

"It's certainly not a good idea to release things on the morning of the hearing, and I think we came to the conclusion that once we've made the determination that the documents should be declassified, there was no justification for holding them up any longer," Litt said. "We have been thinking about this for some time, and we've been processing this as quickly as we can," he added, calling the process "rather time-consuming."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that he was "concerned" Congress was not being given "straightforward answers" about the spying programs and that it wasn't clear the phone records program under Section 215 of the Patriot Act had been effective.

"This bulk collection program has massive privacy implications," Leahy said. "The phone records of all of us in this room reside in an NSA database. I have said repeatedly that just because we have the ability to collect huge amounts of data does not mean that we should be doing so. In fact, it has been reported that the bulk collection of Internet metadata was shut down because it failed to produce meaningful intelligence. We need to take an equally close look at the phone records program. If this program is not effective, it must end. And so far, I am not convinced by what I have seen."

Deputy Attorney General James Cole testified that the 11 judges on the FISA court "are far from a rubber stamp" and "review all of our pleadings thoroughly, they question us, and they don't approve the order until they are satisfied that we have met all statutory and constitutional requirements."

Cole said the Obama administration was "in the process of discussing" the creation of an adversarial process in the FISA court. Under the current system, there is no one to oppose the government's requests before the secret court. "This is certainly part of what we'd like to be talking about to see if that has some utility," Cole said.

Litt testified that he didn't "know of another country in the world that has the degree of judicial supervision of intelligence activities that this country has already." Nonetheless, he said, it would be "entirely appropriate" to build in an adversarial process if that were the best way to ensure intelligence agencies complied with the law.

"But we shouldn't be trying to make this mimic a criminal trial, because it's a very different process," Litt said.

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  • President Barack Obama

    Obama's second-term agenda had to take a backseat after several scandals caught the media's attention in May. Republicans' continued scrutiny of the Obama administration's handling of the attacks in Benghazi was a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/13/obama-press-conference-benghazi_n_3266639.html" target="_blank">significant distraction</a>. Within the same week that the Internal Revenue Service revealed it had <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/13/obama-irs-scandal_n_3266577.html" target="_blank">targeted tea party groups</a> requesting tax-exempt status, news broke that the DOJ <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/13/ap-phone-records-government-intrusion-unprecedented_n_3268569.html" target="_blank">seized</a> months of phone records of journalists for the Associated Press.

  • George W. Bush

    Bush's first and second terms were marked by significant scandals. During Bush's second term, his administration <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/george-w-bush/gIQAWH2QAP_topic.html" target="_blank">came under scrutiny</a> for its handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the firings of numerous federal prosecutors. In 2007, the leak of a CIA agent's name led to the conviction of I. Lewis Libby, then-Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Additional scandals included the arrest of a domestic policy aide after he was caught shoplifting, the resignation of a senior State Department official directly affiliated with the infamous D.C. Madam and an investigation tracing $12 billion worth of funds left unaccounted for in correlation to the Iraq War. <em>Source: <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/george-w-bush/gIQAWH2QAP_topic.html" target="_blank">The Washington Post</a>, <a href="http://www.salon.com/2005/01/18/scandal_11/" target="_blank">Salon</a> and <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/01/06/forgotten-bush-scandals.html" target="_blank">The Daily Beast</a> </em>

  • Bill Clinton

    Though he denied the allegations at first, Clinton <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/clinton/stories/impeach021399.htm" target="_blank">was eventually impeached</a> in his second term after an <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/20/monica-lewinsky-book_n_1900960.html" target="_blank">affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky</a> came to light. He avoided being removed from office. In addition to his affair with Lewinsky, Clinton battled <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/whitewater/whitewater.htm" target="_blank">the Whitewater scandal</a>, a real estate deal gone awry years before he took office. Amid the investigation, the Clintons were accused of fraud and abuse of power. <em>Source: <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/whitewater/whitewater.htm" target="_blank">The Washington Post</a> </em> <em><strong>Correction:</strong> An earlier version of this slide incorrectly stated that Clinton had avoided impeachment.</em>

  • Ronald Reagan

    <a href="http://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/iran-contra-affairs.php" target="_blank">The Iran-Contra affair</a>, an arrangement where weapons were sold to Iran in hopes that the funds would support the Nicaraguan Contras, <a href="http://www.salon.com/2011/02/04/busby_iran_contra/" target="_blank">rocked the Reagan administration</a>. The scandal derailed parts of Reagan's second-term agenda, which was originally intended to be centered on the Soviet Union and the Cold War. <em>Source: <a href="http://www.salon.com/2011/02/04/busby_iran_contra/" target="_blank">Salon.com</a> and <a href="http://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/iran-contra-affairs.php" target="_blank">Brown.edu</a></em>

  • Richard Nixon

    After burglars were arrested inside the <a href="http://www.history.com/topics/watergate" target="_hplink">Watergate building in 1972</a>, it was revealed that they were affiliated with Nixon's reelection campaign. The men were caught in the middle of stealing files and wiretapping phones in the office of the Democratic National Committee. Nixon later raised "hush money" to stop the FBI investigation into the burglars. On August 8, 1974, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0808.html" target="_hplink">Nixon resigned</a> after his role in the Watergate scandal was exposed. Source: <a href="http://www.history.com/topics/watergate" target="_hplink">History.com</a> and <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0808.html" target="_hplink">The New York Times</a>

  • Dwight Eisenhower

    In 1958, Eisenhower's Chief of Staff Sherman Adams resigned after a scandal revealed <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/30/politics/30history.html?_r=0" target="_blank">he met with federal agencies</a> on behalf of a businessman who had given him gifts. According to The New York Times, the recession's effects on the economy resulted in the Republican Party losing 48 House seats. Eisenhower reportedly referred to 1958 as one of the worst years of his life. <em>Source: <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/30/politics/30history.html?_r=0" target="_blank">The New York Times</a></em>

  • Franklin Roosevelt

    In 1937, Roosevelt announced his intent to make the Supreme Court more efficient by expanding it to include as many as 15 judges. Roosevelt was immediately accused of <a href="http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/roosevelt-announces-court-packing-plan" target="_blank">"packing" the court</a> so that his New Deal legislation would face fewer roadblocks. <em>Source: <a href="http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/roosevelt-announces-court-packing-plan" target="_blank">History.com</a></em>

  • Ulysses S. Grant

    Grant's first and second terms were riddled with <a href="http://www.history.com/topics/ulysses-s-grant" target="_blank">scandals</a>. In 1875, associates close to Grant were accused of attempting to defraud the federal government of millions, though Grant himself was not directly involved in the schemes. <em>Source: <a href="http://www.history.com/topics/ulysses-s-grant" target="_blank">History.com</a></em>

  • Thomas Jefferson

    During his second term, Jefferson passed the <a href="http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/185515/Embargo-Act" target="_blank">Embargo Act</a>, which halted trade between the United States and Great Britain. Jefferson hoped Great Britain would be more affected by the Embargo Act than the United States. Unfortunately, however, the act put tremendous strain on the American economy and <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=_pn4Y2FHhg0C&pg=PA73&lpg=PA73&dq=embargo+act+divided+americans&source=bl&ots=Pm1fJFzXNE&sig=edFWLAXXdnDFPcm7uKaYllD94XY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=h8mcUdK3HNej4AOtk4DYBA&ved=0CCoQ6AEwADgK#v=onepage&q&f=false" target="_blank">divided the nation</a>. Josiah Quincy, a leader of the Federalists Party, fiercely opposed the Embargo Act, claiming it was wrong to <a href="http://www.unz.org/Pub/PlatzMabel-1940-00602" target="_blank">abandon commercial prosperity</a>. <em>Source: <a href="http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/185515/Embargo-Act" target="_blank">Britannica.com</a>, <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=_pn4Y2FHhg0C&pg=PA73&lpg=PA73&dq=embargo+act+divided+americans&source=bl&ots=Pm1fJFzXNE&sig=edFWLAXXdnDFPcm7uKaYllD94XY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=h8mcUdK3HNej4AOtk4DYBA&ved=0CCoQ6AEwADgK#v=onepage&q&f=false" target="_blank">Crucible of Power</a> and <a href="http://www.unz.org/Pub/PlatzMabel-1940-00602" target="_blank">Unz.org</a></em>