“The government has provided no comprehensive explanation of how so substantial an overcollection occurred,” Bates wrote in another undated opinion, whose redactions suggest the NSA blamed “noncommunication with the technical personnel directly responsible”.

A senior intelligence official, Shawn Turner of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Guardian in July that the Obama administration shut down the bulk internet metadata collection program in 2011 “for operational and resource reasons” and it had not been restarted.

Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, who has campaigned against the scope of NSA domestic surveillance, has suggested in several statements that the program was wasteful, violated Americans’ privacy and did not lead to useful counterterrorism information.

Hundreds of pages

The NSA also released hundreds of pages of documents on Monday related to training on use of its vast data troves; its certifications to Congress and the court about its bulk phone records collections on Americans; and its internal checks to prevent abuse.

The release was prompted by a lawsuit sponsored by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Monday’s disclosure represented the final round of court-compelled document disclosures as part of the civil liberties organization’s attempts to learn more about what they contend is legally dubious mass surveillance on Americans phone records.

“On the logic of these opinions almost every digital footprint we leave behind can be vacuumed up by the government – who we talk to, what we read, where we go online,” said Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the ACLU. “Like previous releases these materials show the danger of a government that sidesteps public debate and instead grounds its surveillance powers in the secret opinions of a secret court. The more we learn the clearer it is that our surveillance laws and oversight rules are in dramatic need of reform.”

The release comes at the beginning of an important week in Washington for the NSA’s bulk phone records collection. On Thursday the NSA deputy director is scheduled to testify before a Senate panel that is considering a bill to strip the surveillance agency of its power to collect phone data from Americans without individual warrants. Legislators are also discussing attaching surveillance restrictions to an annual defence authorization bill that the Senate is taking up this week.

Monday was also a busy day for the NSA’s bulk surveillance in the courts. The supreme court declined to take a case about the bulk phone records collection, while a judge on a lower federal court considered an injunction against the NSA.

“I don’t know, frankly, how I’m going to come out,” said Judge Richard Leon, who heard arguments for and against an injunction on the bulk phone records surveillance on Monday brought by the conservative group Judicial Watch in his US district court for the District of Columbia.

“It’s going to the court of appeals and probably to the supreme court – one way or the other,” news organizations quoted Leon saying after the hearing.

At least one document related to bulk surveillance was not released.

The Fisa court announced on Monday afternoon that the intelligence agencies and the justice department decided that it would not declassify a court opinion from 19 February 2013 related to the court’s interpretation of Section 215. It is unclear if the opinion refers to bulk phone records collection or to the other sorts of records that the government contends the Patriot Act provision allows it to collect – such as financial data of the sort the Obama administration disclosed last week to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal that the CIA gathers.

The document disclosures came the same day that the US supreme court declined a request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to review the legality of the bulk phone records collection.

A terse statement announcing several court orders did not address the reasons the court denied the review, brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which argued that the Fisa court had no right to order telecoms to turn over customer data in bulk to the government.

Several other legal challenges to the bulk phone records collection are pending before lower federal courts. One of them, brought by the ACLU, will begin oral arguments on Friday in the Southern District of New York.

Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of Epic, said in a statement that he was “disappointed” in the supreme court’s decision as he called the bulk surveillance order “clearly illegal”.

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© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited

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