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US intelligence chief promises transparency reports

The annual reports, however, will be geared toward "aggregate information" on certain information-gathering activities and will be "limited by our need to protect intelligence sources and methods."

James Clapper
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper
CBSNews video/Screenshot by CNET

Leaker of secrets Edward Snowden has brought no end of unwanted transparency to the activities of US spy agencies. Now the US intelligence community is promising a little transparency of its own.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a Tumblr post Thursday night that his office will issue an annual report to the public on certain aspects of what US intelligence agencies have been up to. The new promise follows a directive by President Obama in June that those agencies provide a degree of insight to US citizenry into what they've been up.

Don't expect any salacious details about undercover operations, however. The transparency report will be geared toward "aggregate information" on certain information-gathering activities and will be "limited by our need to protect intelligence sources and methods," Clapper wrote.

The first such transparency report will be issued in "the late fall," according to a Washington Post story that cited an unnamed spokesperson for Clapper's office.

Here's what the report will encompass:

Specifically, for each of the following categories of national security authorities, the [intelligence community] will release the total number of orders issued during the prior twelve-month period, and the number of targets affected by these orders:
  • FISA orders based on probable cause (Titles I and III of FISA, and sections 703 and 704)
  • Section 702 of FISA
  • FISA Business Records (Title V of FISA)
  • FISA Pen Register/Trap and Trace ( Title IV of FISA)
  • National Security Letters issued pursuant to 12 U.S.C. § 3414(a)(5), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1681u(a) and (b), 15 U.S.C. § 1681v, and 18 U.S.C. § 2709

FISA is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which defines activities allowed to surveillance agencies -- including intercepts of some online communications, under certain conditions. Under Section 702, for instance, the National Security Agency acquires more than 250 million Internet communications each year, primarily from Internet service providers.

Among the revelations by Snowden since his first appearance in the UK-based Guardian newspaper in May was the recent allegation that tech heavyweights including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft have received money from the NSA to cover legal-compliance costs connected with its Prism surveillance program.

Those tech companies have been bristling about charges they're making nice with spies. Google, for one, has mounted a legal effort to overturn a gag order that prevents it from sharing even summary statistics about the FISA-approved data requests that it gets.