For NSA, Americans' Emails Are an Open Book
Aug 9, 2013 5:00 AM PT
The NSA is reading communications between Americans and foreigners abroad, despite its denials, The New York Times reported.
The NSA responded to the allegations by stating its activities are lawful attempts to gather intelligence about foreign powers and their agents, foreign organizations, foreign persons or international terrorists, and not Americans.
It only collects what it is explicitly authorized to collect, the NSA contended. The agency previously had claimed it was collecting only metadata about communications and not looking at their actual content, a stance backed by the current administration.
The Chastity of the Mind
Doubts have been expressed about the NSA's statements, given that its authorization comes from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Service Court, which is apparently issuing rulings that assess broad constitutional questions and establish judicial precedent without oversight.
"The revelations today answer the question about whether the NSA is vacuuming up the bulk of the international communications that Americans have, and the answer to that question is yes," Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told TechNewsWorld.
"Considering the NSA has been less than honest in previous statements, including during testimony in Congress, I take what they are saying with skepticism," remarked Yasha Heidari, managing partner in the Heidari Power Law Group.
"This surveillance did not prevent the Boston Marathon bombing, although it was in place," Heidari continued. "I do not believe it is very worthwhile."
Reaching Into the Cookie Jar
The NSA is apparently temporarily copying and sifting through the contents of most cross-border communications.
A computer then searches the data for various selectors, including specific keywords, and stores those that have content matching the selectors. Human analysts later examine the earmarked communications and the rest are deleted, an unnamed NSA official reportedly said.
There have been occasions when technological issues led to inadvertent overcollection of data, but the NSA monitors for these problems, fixes them, and reports such incidents to its overseers in the government, the official told the Times.
Honesty Is Such a Lonely Word
The NSA's claims to be adhering to strict procedural rules and to report any problems to its overseers in the government are open to question.
It's not clear just to whom the agency reports.
Further, these interceptions are made without a warrant, despite NSA deputy director John Inglis' testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee in June that the agency does not target the content of Americans' communications without a specific warrant anywhere on the planet.
"The NSA has cast a massive dragnet over Americans' international communications, collecting and monitoring all of them, and retaining some untold number of them in government databases," said Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director. "This is precisely the kind of generalized spying that the Fourth Amendment was intended to prohibit."
The U.S. Supreme Court in February dismissed the ACLU's legal challenge to FISA on what amounted to an argument that the organization's allegations of a wide-reaching surveillance program were speculative.
Imagination Better Than Knowledge
The current administration has strongly defended the NSA's actions, and president Obama said on The Tonight Show that the federal government does not have a domestic spying program. Instead, it has some mechanisms that can track a telephone number or email address that is known to be connected to some sort of terrorist activity.
"President Obama is certainly being creative with the truth," Heidari told TechNewsWorld. "He has been disingenuous with a number of similar issues in the recent past, including one of his presidential platforms of promoting transparency."
Allowing the NSA's activities to take place calls into question the president's adherence to basic principles of the American Constitution, Heidari continued. "As a former Constitutional law professor, it is hard to believe that he does not know this."