US intelligence chiefs have confirmed that the National Security Agency uses loopholes in the surveillance law to carry out unsanctioned searches of Americans’ phone conversations and e-mail messages.
On the face of it, the NSA’s collection programmes are aimed at foreigners, but in August the Guardian published a secret change in the rules allowing the NSA to look through Americans’ messages.
James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, confirmed for the first time in a letter that data related to US persons was collected. The letter and all top-secret NSA documents were provided to The Guardian by Edward Snowden. Clapper did not specify how many unauthorized searches had been performed by the NSA.
Speaking of the broad surveillance in June, President Barack Obama said that no one listened to people’s telephone calls. The programme was meant to register phone numbers and durations of calls only, not people’s names or the content of calls. Now confirmation that the NSA inspects Americans’ phone call and email databases casts doubt on Obama’s words.
The NSA is allowed to collect communications without individual warrants as long as those are foreign communications. The communications of Americans in contact with foreigners can also be collected without a warrant, and intelligence agencies admit that purely domestic communications can also be unintentionally swept into the databases. This process is called ‘incidental collection’.
Initially, NSA regulations did not allow the databases to be searched for any information relating to US citizens or residents of the US. But in October 2011 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved new procedures that allowed the agency to investigate US persons’ communications. This information was provided in documents revealed by Snowden. The ruling gives the agency free access to databases containing information relating to US people.