Declassified court documents show that NSA collected as many as 56,000 American communications a year

NSA Admits Collecting Americans' Emails By Mistake, Hopes That Will Help You Not Freak Out

NSA Admits Collecting Americans' Emails By Mistake, Hopes That Will Help You Not Freak Out

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Aug. 21 2013 7:23 PM

Court Reveals NSA Collected Some 56,000 Communications of Americans Without Terror Links

President Barack Obama with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (L) and Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan (R) in the East Room at the White House.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In an apparent effort to make you, user of the Internet and sender of email, feel better about reports about the scale of data collected by the National Security Agency from everyday, non-terrorist Americans, the NSA today declassified three secret court opinions. The now public FISA court opinions show that the NSA told the court in 2011 that it inadvertently intercepted as many as 56,000 emails and other communications of Americans each year over a three-year period.

Here are the key takeaways from the AP on today's declassified decisions:


The NSA disclosed that it gathers some 250 million internet communications each year, with some 9 percent from these "upstream" channels, amounting to between 20 million to 25 million emails a year. The agency used statistical analysis to estimate that of those, possibly as many as 56,000 Internet communications collected were sent by Americans or persons in the U.S. with no connection to terrorism.

Officials went on to tell the AP, “when they realized they had an American communication, the communication was destroyed. But it was not clear how they determined whom an email belonged to and whether any NSA analyst had actually read the content of the email. The officials said the bulk of the information was never accessed or analyzed.”

More from the AP:

In the opinion by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court denouncing the practice, the judge wrote that the NSA had advised the court that "the volume and nature of the information it had been collecting is fundamentally different than what the court had been led to believe," and went on to say the court must consider "whether targeting and minimization procedures comport with the 4th Amendment."


For instance, two senior intelligence officials said, when an American logged into an email server and looked at the emails in his or her inbox, that screen shot of the emails could be collected, together with Internet transactions by a terrorist suspect being targeted by the NSA - because that suspect's communications were being sent on the same fiber optic cable by the same Internet provider, in a bundled packet of data.

The court opinions were declassified, according to the AP, to help the Obama administration explain recent disclosures about NSA surveillance programs by the Washington Post. "One of the intelligence officials briefing reporters said the newly declassified documents should help explain 'the reasons why people shouldn't go into a panic over articles they read in the press,'” the AP reports.

The page's "about" section reads:

Created at the direction of the President of the United States, IC ON THE RECORD provides immediate, ongoing and direct access to factual information related to the lawful foreign surveillance activities carried out by the U.S. Intelligence Community.

A Twitter account has also been created: