NSA officials admit to widespread collection of emails, other text communications sent to people overseas

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Madison Ruppert
Activist Post

Anonymous National Security Agency (NSA) officials have revealed that the agency collects emails and other text communications when they are received from foreign sources, sent internationally or when they mention a particular person or something related to that person.

The fact that the NSA conducts widespread surveillance of people communicating with foreign individuals has been known for quite some time, but this is the first time that officials have admitted that the scale of surveillance is much larger than previously thought.

Indeed, as The New York Times report states, the agency is going beyond gathering the communications of Americans who are directly communicating with overseas targets, “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.”

As CNET rightly points out, this is the first “acknowledgement on the part of the intelligence community that ostensibly innocent communications with people overseas are being collected.”

Citing unnamed government officials, the Times states that the NSA’s widespread cross-border surveillance was authorized in the FISA Amendments Act (FAA).

The FAA allows the NSA to eavesdrop on the communications of Americans as long as the stated target is a non-citizen in another country, though a senior official claimed that voice communications are not included.

NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel wouldn’t directly address cross-border communications surveillance in her comments to the Times, though she did say that their surveillance is lawful.

The NSA’s surveillance is not focused on gathering intelligence about Americans but instead about “foreign powers and their agents, foreign organizations, foreign persons or international terrorists.”

“In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, N.S.A. collects only what it is explicitly authorized to collect,” Emmel said to the Times. “Moreover, the agency’s activities are deployed only in response to requirements for information to protect the country and its interests.”

However, thanks to a document leaked by Edward Snowden, it has now become clear that the agency “seeks to acquire communications about the target that are not to or from the target.”

In order to do that, computer scientists told the Times that it would be necessary for the NSA to first gather “nearly all cross-border text-based data.”

Given that the British GCHQ collects massive amounts of data directly from fiber optic cables thanks to the assistance given by telecom giants, that doesn’t seem unrealistic at this point.

According to an anonymous senior official who talked to the Times, a computer searches the collected data for identifying keywords or one of the other potential “selectors.”

The system then stores those communications that match the selectors for later examination by a human analyst in a process that takes “a small number of seconds.”

The communications that remain are deleted, according to the official, who also claimed that the system cannot perform “retrospective searching.”

The official claimed that the search terms used by the agency are “very precise” in an effort to minimize the number of communications of innocent Americans that are flagged and collected by the program.

However, the official still noted that “there had been times when changes by telecommunications providers or in the technology had led to inadvertent overcollection.” He claimed that they monitor for such problems, fix them and report incidents to superiors.

This practice could give a significant degree of insight into repeated statements made by government officials claiming that the NSA surveillance does not “target” Americans.

A significant amount of communications could be collected without actually “targeting” someone, and the law itself is ambiguous on the issue, according to Timothy Edgar, a former intelligence official for both the Bush and Obama administrations.

“There is an ambiguity in the law about what it means to ‘target’ someone,” Edgar, currently a visiting follow in international studies at Brown University, said to the Times.

“You can never intentionally target someone inside the United States,” Edgar maintains. “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 Times reports that the NSA “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,” but leaks present a different picture.

As I reported in June, under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court certification “the NSA is allowed to pick their own surveillance targets and they only have to have 51 percent certainty that the target is a foreigner.

It doesn’t seem that 51 percent certainty can really be considered “ensur[ing]” anything.

Interestingly, one senior intelligence official told the Times that while the so-called “about the target” surveillance had been valuable, “it was difficult to point to any particular terrorist plot that would have been carried out if the surveillance had not taken place.”

The official said that it was actually one of many tools used to create a “mosaic” of information and I used not just for terrorism investigations but other types of foreign intelligence collection as well.

Interestingly, the Times report notes that there has been no public disclosure of a single ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that justifies the court’s legal analysis behind allowing “about the target” searches of the cross-border communications of Americans.

Yet that is hardly surprising given the fact that the court’s opinions are protected by a thick veil of secrecy even though we know that government surveillance breached the 4th Amendment on at least one occasion.

The Obama administration has fought to keep those opinions secret and the degree of transparency in that realm is currently laughable.

I’d love to hear your opinion, take a look at your story tips and even your original writing if you would like to get it published. I am also available for interviews on radio, television or any other format. Please email me at Admin@EndtheLie.com

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This article first appeared at End the Lie.

Madison Ruppert is the Editor and Owner-Operator of the alternative news and analysis database End The Lie and has no affiliation with any NGO, political party, economic school, or other organization/cause. He is available for podcast and radio interviews. Madison also now has his own radio show on UCYTV Monday nights 7 PM – 9 PM PT/10 PM – 12 AM ET. Show page link here: http://UCY.TV/EndtheLie. If you have questions, comments, or corrections feel free to contact him at admin@EndtheLie.com

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