NSA Gets to Decide Who's Foreign

New documents reveal rules on surveillance targets
By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 21, 2013 7:58 AM CDT
NSA Gets to Decide Who's Foreign
National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander testifies on Capitol Hill, June 18, 2013, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing regarding NSA surveillance.   (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

For weeks, President Obama and other senior officials have touted the special FISA court as a safeguard on NSA surveillance. Well, the Guardian and Washington Post have obtained top-secret documents submitted to and approved by that court that outline the rules and limits placed on the program. How reassuring they are may depend on your level of skepticism.

  • The Glass Half Private reading: The documents outline many steps the NSA must take to be sure its would-be target is a foreigner, including reviewing all available data on the target and checking him against a huge database of phone numbers and email addresses known to belong to Americans to make sure he is a non-United States person. If the target enters the US, surveillance is halted immediately, even if the target is not a US citizen.

  • The Glass Half Spied On reading: The NSA doesn't check each target with the court or anyone else; it gets broad authority to spy on anyone it feels meets its criteria, and if it has no data on a target's location, it can assume the target is overseas. It can retain any "inadvertently acquired" domestic communications that contain intelligence or info on criminal activity, and it can keep data that could involve US persons for up to five years. The court issues broad, bulk warrants; one seen by the Guardian was only a paragraph long and unburdened by legal rationale. And any foreigner is fair game to be targeted, whether suspected of wrongdoing or not.

The Guardian also points out that these rules only apply to the chunk of NSA activities authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The bulk seizing of call records occurs under the Patriot Act. Civil liberties groups are among those not calmed by the disclosures. "What’s most striking about the targeting procedures is the discretion they confer on the NSA," says a Brennan Center for Justice exec. In an attempt to reassure critics, President Obama will today hold his first meeting with his rarely heard from Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the AP reports. (Read more Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act stories.)

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