The ACLU, along with the Media Freedom Information Access (“MFIA”) Clinic at Yale Law School, have filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit demanding that the government release information about its use of Executive Order 12,333 to conduct surveillance of Americans’ international communications.
The executive order, signed by President Reagan in 1981 and modified many times since, is the authority relied upon by the intelligence agencies, including the NSA, to conduct surveillance of foreigners outside of the United States. According to recent reports, however, the government relies upon the executive order to sweep up the international communications of countless Americans. For example, it collect billions of records every day containing the location information of mobile phones, including Americans’ phones; to harvest the address books of email users; and to sweep up the information of users of Google and Yahoo as it travels between those companies’ data centers abroad.
One document already released to the ACLU is a recent version of U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18, dated 2011. USSID 18 — as it is commonly referred to — regulates the NSA’s collection of Americans’ communications, including from surveillance conducted on foreign soil. Until Edward Snowden’s disclosures, little was known about how the NSA interpreted its authority under USSID 18. Many questions remain unanswered even since those disclosures, but this much is clear: the government interprets USSID 18 to permit it to sweep up Americans’ international communications without any court order and with little oversight.
The ACLU’s requests seek information about USSID 18 and other supposed protections that are in place for Americans whose communications are ensnared in surveillance conducted under the executive order, and whether those protections are adequate and consistent with the Constitution.