The Obama administration allowed the National Security Agency to gather Americans’ Internet information, including emails, until 2011 under a secret program launched by President George W. Bush, according to newly leaked documents.
The data collection was first reported by the Guardian newspaper. An official confirmed its existence to the Associated Press.
The NSA ended the program that collected email logs and timing, but not content, in 2011 because it did not do what was needed to stop terrorist attacks, according to the NSA's director. Gen. Keith Alexander, who also heads the U.S. Cyber Command, said all data was purged at that time.
The Guardian Thursday released documents detailing the collection, although the program was also described earlier this month by The Washington Post.
The Guardian said that according to secret documents it had obtained, a federal judge sitting on the FISA court, a secret surveillance panel, would approve a collection order for Internet metadata every 90 days.
It added the records collection began during the Bush administration under a wide-ranging warrantless surveillance program known by the NSA codename Stellar Wind.
The latest revelation follows previous leaks from ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who is presumed hiding at a Moscow airport transit area, waiting to hear whether Ecuador, Iceland or another country might grant him asylum.
The collection appears similar to the gathering of U.S. phone records, and seems to overlap with the Prism surveillance program of foreigners on U.S. Internet servers, both revealed by Snowden.
U.S. officials have said the phone records can only be checked for numbers dialed by a terrorist suspect overseas.
Alexander said at a Baltimore conference on cybersecurity that the NSA decided to kill the Internet data gathering program because "it wasn't meeting what we needed and we thought we could better protect civil liberties and privacy by doing away with it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report