Sprint sign

The public only started learning about the legal justifications for the NSA's collection of bulk phone records last June, but we now know that at least one telecom received notice much earlier. Both declassified info and Washington Post interviews have revealed that the White House gave Sprint the secret reasoning behind the NSA's surveillance in 2010 to fend off a threatened court challenge over the program's legality. Sprint dropped its formal opposition after that, but it pushed for the declassification last year as a retort to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court claims that there had been no court challenges. There might not have been a legal battle, a government official tells the Post, but there were still doubts.

Sprint isn't directly confirming its role, but it says in a statement that it wants "substantive legal grounding" for any customer data requests and will refuse orders that it believes are violating the law. While those are important policies, the revelations suggest that the company isn't all that heroic -- unlike civil liberty advocates, it didn't contest the NSA's snooping after getting an official explanation. Still, the newly public information confirms that Verizon isn't the only major US phone provider in recent memory to have had qualms about the government's large-scale data collection.

[Image credit: AFP/Getty Images]

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Sprint had legal details of the NSA's bulk phone data collection in 2010