When in doubt, NSA searches information on Americans (+video)
According to newly revealed secret documents, the NSA retains wide discretion over targeting individuals for surveillance – including, potentially, Americans. Civil libertarians say 'it confirms our worst fears.'
Ever since a former National Security Agency contractor blew the cover off two massive, top secret intelligence collection programs that targeted phone records and Internet data, President Obama and senior NSA officials have insisted that the programs target only foreign terror suspects.Skip to next paragraph
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In any case, Mr. Obama and the NSA have argued, a warrant is required to target Americans’ communications.
But according to newly revealed secret documents, the NSA retains wide discretion over targeting individuals for surveillance based on whether they are “reasonably believed” to be outside the US – as well as over what to do with communications data on Americans that are “inadvertently acquired.”
The documents, which were published by The Washington Post and Guardian newspapers late Thursday, are purported to be from the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington and focus on intelligence programs operated under section 702 of the Patriot Act – which targets foreigners. The court, which was established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), rules on overseas requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign agents or terror suspects.
The NSA surveillance programs were publicly revealed a week ago in top secret documents leaked to the Guardian and the Post. Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, said he leaked the documents to expose an overreaching spy program. The NSA is charged with spying overseas – but by law may not spy on Americans at home or abroad – without a warrant.
On Friday, US officials said federal prosecutors have filed a sealed criminal complaint against Mr. Snowden, charging him with espionage and theft. The United States has also asked Hong Kong, where he is believed to be hiding, to detain him on a provisional arrest warrant.
Before the latest documents became public, the NSA sought to reassure the American public that its surveillance programs were beneficial.
In hearings Tuesday before the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the head of the NSA, told the committee that the surveillance had helped prevent “potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11” and that 10 of the plots involved terror suspects or targets in the United States.
“In the 12 years since the attacks on Sept. 11, we have lived in relative safety and security as a nation,” General Alexander said. “That security is a direct result of the intelligence community’s quiet efforts to better connect the dots and learn from the mistakes that permitted those attacks to occur on 9/11.”
But even as the drama of the pursuit and possible prosecution of Snowden unfolds, the new details that came to light late Thursday, which spell out procedures for those programs, seem likely to spur further foment in Congress and the American public.
Determining whether a target is inside the US or not, is a key uncertainty addressed by one legal FISA court document on “targeting non-United States persons.”