Fact and Fiction in the NSA Surveillance Scandal

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June 26 2013 11:57 AM

Fact and Fiction in the NSA Surveillance Scandal

The whistle-blower’s claims, revisited.

(Continued from Page 1)

Edward Snowden heads: Five. This program, conducted in secret for years, affects hundreds of millions of Americans, and the public interest in its disclosure was huge. It could eventually be ruled unconstitutional, and the revelations about its existence have exposed Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the accusation that he lied to Congress when he publicly claimed the NSA was not collecting any data on millions of Americans.

Update, July 3: Clapper has admitted to, and apologized for, giving what he described as a “clearly erroneous” statement to Congress about the phone records surveillance program.


Claim: “Americans’ communications are collected and viewed [by the NSA] on a daily basis” (Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked the documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post, June 17).


Status: President Obama and the Director of National Intelligence’s Office have both attempted to dismiss this claim by stating that the NSA cannot “target” Americans for surveillance without an individualised warrant. However, leaked secret procedural documents have confirmed beyond all doubt that the NSA can and does sweep up and retain Americans’ communications collected without a specific warrant. Under a controversial 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the NSA can “incidentally” gather Americans’ communications while monitoring international channels and it likely does so on a daily basis. The agency, the leaked documents have confirmed, has the authority to store these inadvertently collected communications for up to five years if the content meets certain broadly defined criteria, such as that it is deemed relevant to “foreign intelligence” or is believed to contain “secret meaning.” Sensitive emails or phone calls, such as those between an attorney and a client, are not off limits. The NSA has authority to snoop on and retain incidentally gathered attorney-client communications if they are judged to contain information relevant to foreign intelligence.

Update, July 3: The Guardian revealed in a new report published June 27 that the Obama administration collected “vast amounts of records detailing the email and internet usage of Americans” until 2011 under a program originally authorized by the George W. Bush administration.

Edward Snowden heads: Five. There can be no doubt that, among the more than 1 billion messages the NSA intercepts every day, it sweeps up Americans’ private communications and views them—often without any specific search warrant.

Claim: “The NSA … targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default” (Edward Snowden, June 9).


Status: Details are still sketchy about the accuracy of this explosive claim. Documents revealed by the Guardian shed some light on the extent of the agency’s surveillance and suggest it is capable of gobbling up huge volumes of communications. But there is little evidence so far that supports any allegation that it can and does sweep up all global communications. An NSA tool named Boundless Informant, for instance, is used to record and analyze a significant portion of where the agency’s intelligence is coming from. The tool showed that in March alone, the agency gathered, from across the world, 97 billion metadata records from computer networks and 125 billion telephone metadata records. Metadata is information about communications—who you are communicating with, where, and when—but not the content of the communications.



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