The New York Times reports that, according to intelligence officials, the National Security Agency is searching the contents of Americans’ text and email communications going into and out of the United States in an effort to gather information about foreigners under surveillance.
The Times discovered small details about the program from documents released by the Guardian in June, noting that “the telltale paragraph, the only rule marked ‘Top Secret’ amid 18 pages of restrictions, went largely overlooked amid other disclosures.” An intelligence official confirmed:
The N.S.A. is not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, a practice that government officials have openly acknowledged. It is also casting a far wider net for people who cite information linked to those foreigners, like a little used e-mail address, according to a senior intelligence official.
While it has long been known that the agency conducts extensive computer searches of data it vacuums up overseas, that it is systematically searching — without warrants — through the contents of Americans’ communications that cross the border reveals more about the scale of its secret operations.
The government maintains that the program is legal, operating under authorizations in the 2008 FISA Amendments Act but the disclosures raise questions about what it means to “target” Americans’ communications:
At a House Intelligence Committee oversight hearing in June, for example, a lawmaker pressed the deputy director of the N.S.A., John Inglis, to say whether the agency listened to the phone calls or read the e-mails and text messages of American citizens. Mr. Inglis replied, “We do not target the content of U.S. person communications without a specific warrant anywhere on the earth.”
Timothy Edgar, a former intelligence official in the Bush and Obama administrations, said that the rule concerning collection “about” a person targeted for surveillance rather than directed at that person had provoked significant internal discussion.
“There is an ambiguity in the law about what it means to ‘target’ someone,” Mr. Edgar, now a visiting professor at Brown, said. “You can never intentionally target someone inside the United States. Those are the words we were looking at. We were most concerned about making sure the procedures only target communications that have one party outside the United States.”
“The rule they ended up writing, which was secretly approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” the Times’ Charlie Savage writes, “says that the N.S.A. must ensure that one of the participants in any conversation that is acquired when it is searching for conversations about a targeted foreigner must be outside the United States, so that the surveillance is technically directed at the foreign end.”
In other news:
- The Wall Street Journal reports: Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, moved to significantly reduce the presence of the country’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in Tehran’s next government — a trend U.S. and European officials cautiously take as a hopeful sign for international efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program.
- The AP reports: Same-sex spouses of military members could get health care, housing and other benefits by the end of August under a proposal being considered by the Pentagon. But earlier plans to provide benefits to gay partners who are not married may be reversed.
- The Washington Post reports: The recent security threat emanating from Yemen has complicated President Obama’s latest push to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, reviving doubts among conservative lawmakers about whether it is safe to return Yemeni detainees to their turbulent home country.