New Declassified Documents Show Inappropriate NSA Surveillance

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Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 12, 2013

The National Security Agency collected tens of thousands of e-mails to or from Americans annually between 2008 and 2011, according to documents declassified on Wednesday, in an official admission that the U.S. government overstepped its authority to monitor solely foreign communications without a warrant.

The documents — previously secret rulings by the classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — show that over the course of three years, the NSA improperly collected the e-mails from “upstream” Internet monitoring under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Upstream content is taken while transiting the Internet’s thruways of fiber-optic cable, as opposed to information gathered from Internet service providers at the virtual off-ramps. The agency discovered the problem in 2011, and unilaterally brought it to the attention of the court and congressional intelligence committees, officials said.

Intelligence officials said the improper collection was the result of a technological issue, and not an effort by the spy agency to reach into domestic communications. “This is not an egregious overreaching by a greedy agency seeking to spy on Americans,” one official said. “This is a technological problem.”

On a conference call with reporters, officials outlined how upstream communications are collected, saying it first flows from a targeted e-mail address that they believe to be linked to terrorist activity. “We can collect communications that are either to that e-mail address, from that e-mail address or mention that e-mail address,” the official said. In the case of browser-based e-mail services like Gmail and Hotmail, the official explained that the NSA would collect what amounts to a screenshot of the inbox that mentions the targeted address. The technology had no way of separating wholly domestic and foreign e-mails from the same collection.

The released documents show the court wasn’t concerned that the NSA was collecting the communications — just with how the agency was treating it. The court allowed the upstream collection to continue, but instituted tougher safeguards to prevent unauthorized use of the data and mandated that the records be destroyed sooner than other data collected. In a letter accompanying the release, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper revealed that the NSA now has over 300 personnel dedicated to ensuring that the surveillance programs comply with the law and court rulings — a fourfold increase in the past four years.

In the first six months of 2011, the NSA collected 13.25 million “Internet transactions” from the upstream surveillance, the court records show. The agency disclosed that it gathers in total about 250 million Internet communications each year, with only about 9% of those communications coming from “upstream” channels.

On the call, officials also announced the launch of a new website on the collection programs, a Tumblr page where the intelligence community plans to communicate with the American people about its surveillance efforts.

45 comments
JohnBond
JohnBond

These peeking voyeurs need to be castrated. How dare this bassturd president support these F-ing criminals? Time to run these people into court and try them for violations of the constitution. Jail them for 1000 years for their crimes, execute them if we have to. We must make an example of these criminals to stop thugs like these in the future.

CandyMM
CandyMM

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Heizzzenberg
Heizzzenberg

That's fine...next time I fib on my tax return I'll tell the IRS it was an honest mistake...I misread/misinterpreted the law....but in the future...I'll fix it. Or how abouts you admit....you BROKE...THE LAW....and regardless if it was on purpose...you still BROKE...THE....LAW...and thus should be thrown in jail. Oh wait, rules don't apply to you, only us. Remember, one day....eventually...we'll put down our delicious gluten free white chocolate mochas...drag you out into the streets kicking and screaming...and you'll beg...BEG for our forgiveness...and on that beautiful day of reckoning...your excuses will be obsolete and the other shoe will drop. Until then, I will continue sipping my delicious mocha in utter disgust of this government.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

Dear Joe Klein: does this mean that you're finally going to apologize to your reader(s)? Perhaps Pete Hoekstra can pen one for you.

yss
yss

so big

mary.waterton
mary.waterton

Given the political misuse of the IRS, what reason do we have to believe that data collected by the NSA is not also being used for political purposes by the White House? The Director of the NSA is appointed by the president and answers solely to him as Commander-in Chief. Not even members of Congress are allowed oversight of the NSA. They must file information requests and are turned down at the discretion of the NSA.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

”We can collect communications that are either to that email address, from that email address, or mention that email address,” the official said. In the case of browser-based email like Gmail and Hotmail, the official explained that the NSA would collect what amounts to a screenshot of the inbox that mentions the targeted address. The technology had no way of separating wholly domestic and foreign emails from the same collection...In the first six months of 2011, the NSA collected 13.25 million “Internet transactions” from the upstream surveillance, the court records show. The agency disclosed that it gathers in total about 250 million Internet communications each year."


What could possibly go wrong?

DeanCosby
DeanCosby

Ground Zero will, sooner or later, be targeted again. Don't you want maximum protection to the extent of NSA sometimes stumbling on your 'junk'? I know, those who wish security by giving up some freedom get neither, but hey, feel free to do whatever you want online as long as you don't plan on any terrorist attack.


andsheron
andsheron

so a court allows the snooping on americans email because the prosecution asks for it.  The defense says nothing because there is no defense for the defendant, who happen to be the american people.  Which means americans are being tried by their own government without their knowledge or any way to defend themselves.

destor23
destor23

So, the explanations here are all benign.  It was an accident.  It was self reported.  The self-regulating system works.  Except that the guy who is telling us about it all, James Clapper, recently lied to Congress and there were no consequences for that.  It happened and everyone looked the other way.  How can we trust them?

jmac
jmac

Letter to the editor to NY Times from the director of cybersecuirty at Stonesoft Corporation:

"The dangers from cyberattacks have not abated simply because we are squeamish about the  security agency's (N.S.A) monitoring practices.  America's hesitancy to increase defensive and offensive cybercapabilities could lead to a crippling cyberattack that brings down financial systems, air traffic control or water and power supplies."  

-----------

I understand there are some who think alQaeda just lives in caves and number in the thousands, but that's not true.  And it's not just al Qaeda we have to consider.   China hacked into the NY Times.     We're in a different world than just ten years ago, and we have to balance security with privacy.    We also have to trust our elected officials and make sure there's oversight.   It apparently worked in 2011.  

MichaelSweden
MichaelSweden

Would it not be easier if everybody just sent a copy directly to NSA of all their e-mails. I am sure that Google would be helpful to build that into their software., As always.  A sort of NSA-button, Wouldn't it be better if every citizen had to write a file on their life, and send that to the appropriate authorities on regular intervals. I am sure that it is necessary for "national security". That term is a blanket that covers everything. Anything can be motivated under that label?


doyoucopy
doyoucopy

Believe me.56.000 is just a fraction

tom.litton
tom.litton

My problem isn't that they have collected this information.  My problem is that they did it in secret.  

How can you have a debate about what is appropriate and not appropriate if it is all done in secret?  Sooner or later someone will cross the line.  They will convince themselves it's in the best interest of the nation, but it will ultimately be to the detriment of US democracy.

jmac
jmac

This was stopped by the cry from Democratic Senators Wyden and Udall and the Electronic  Frontier Foundation.  

The secret F.I.S.A Court it entirely seated by Justice Roberts.   Every judge on there has been a Republican until the latest nominee, a conservative Democrat.    We have a procedure for changing N.S.A. and surveillance and it's through the Democratic process and the rule of law.  

FeebWillis
FeebWillis

Clapper is guilty of 56,000 counts of invading the privacy of American Citizens. I think one day in the clink for Clapper for every count would be appropriate.   In other words, 150 years.  Maybe that will send the message loud and clear.

jdtweet_
jdtweet_

@TIME @TIMEPolitics there use 2 be a time when..1 was told/advised 2 b careful what they put in writing.that went out the window with net.

kingmike01
kingmike01

@TIME That comment must make you guilty of terrorism, surely?

jdtweet_
jdtweet_

@TIME @TIMEPolitics actually,the internet..although a way to connect..it is more wise to do without.to many have fallen cause of it.

laurenjharwood
laurenjharwood

@TIME why can't they find & obliterate pedophiles if they're reading all this stuff? At least that would be a bright side

StephenDing
StephenDing

so if it's a mistake, I fail to see why Snowden should still be pursued

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drudown
drudown

@JohnBond 

You erroneously imply this NSA program was instituted by President Obama instead of his GOP predecessor, President George W. Bush

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@mary.waterton"The Director of the NSA is appointed by the president and answers solely to him as Commander-in Chief. Not even members of Congress are allowed oversight of the NSA."

 Maybe you should read the post before commenting (it's not War and Peace, after all):

"The documents—previously secret rulings by the classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—show that over the course of three years, the NSA improperly collected the emails from “upstream” Internet monitoring under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act."

The NSA program is overseen by the judges on the FISA Court. Not that it's very transparent (though it did reveal this abuse) or it's rules very useful for the purpose of securing our papers and effects, but it's also not a Start Chamber for the President's political abuse. Nor was there any misuse of the IRS; they were basically doing their job of enforcing 501C tax exempt status.

There are plenty of actual abuses of government power in this country. Try turning off FOX and Rush and you might learn something.

drudown
drudown

@jmac 

You erroneously imply that there is some "compelling State interest" or "exigent circumstances" that justify the State (i.e., via the NSA) disregarding our own Bill of Rights on account of some Al Qaeda boogeyman. 

Sorry, any one of us can be gunned down by a fellow citizen at a moment's notice. If that "danger" obviously doesn't warrant an abolition of the 4th Amendment how can any person credibly contend that the tenuous risk of some disbanded, disorganized group of "terrorists" somehow "justifies" arguably the largest, ongoing and continuous breach of the Constitution in our Nation's history?

It doesn't.

drudown
drudown

@jmac 

So what are you saying? That the State can disregard the 4th Amendment in instances that obviously have no nexus to Al Qaeda whatsoever?

jmac
jmac

@tom.litton It has to be secret because it involves national security.   When someone crosses the line it will be up to Congress to find that out through the Intelligence Committee.    We have the head of the Supreme Court, Roberts, filling the Secret Court.

That's why elections are important.  That's why the Supreme Court is so important.  

drudown
drudown

@jmac 

No, there are much simpler "solutions".

First, the Executive branch directs the NSA to cease and desist from warrantless spying on US citizens as a matter of honoring the rule of law. 

Moreover, any State action can be overturned via Judicial Review.

jmac
jmac

Correction:  Mary McLaughlin of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, sits on the main FISA court.  She was appointed because "she works closely with a Republican senator."  (Specter).    (From the NY Times)

Anyone who is complaining about N.S.A. or the secret spy  court should know that it is a Republican court appointed by a Republican Supreme Court Justice.   If you want to cry about this court - you know who to complain to - your Republican Senator who sits on the Intelligence Committee.  Call Rubio.   

DanBruce
DanBruce

@jmac Sorry, jmac, the folks who support Manning, Snowden, and their ilk are not interested in rule of law. By taking things into theirt own hands (they think they know best for all of us), they are throwing the Constitution and all law out the window. 

jmac
jmac

@laurenjharwood @TIME They weren't "reading" the "stuff".  

jmac
jmac

@StephenDing  This procedure was stopped in 2011 by the rule of law - by congressmen and by a Court appointed by Justice Roberts.   

Snowden is being pursued because he downloaded massive secret intelligence and then fled to China.   No one knows what was in that mass that he downloaded and whether it will hurt security, diplomatic relations, or lives.    Even those with the encrypted secret documents don't know - it was that massive a dump.  

jmac
jmac

@drudown @jmac What I'm saying is it's up to our courts to say if there's a "compelling state interest" and that if you think your rights have been violated you take it to court.  

Right now all of our Courts, from the Supreme Court to the FISA Court to the U.S. Foreign Surveillance Court are in conservative judges' hands.   They decide.  That's our system.    Take your pick.  But even a liberal court isn't going to think , like you, that al Qaeda is a "boogeyman".   That's living in a thermos - exactly what Bush jr lived in when he ignored al Qaeda.    

jmac
jmac

@drudown @jmacThe FISA Court was established in 1978.  It  oversees NSA.   It is a secret court appointed by The Chief Justice.  There have been three Chief Justices who have appointed  judges to the court - all Conservative Republicans.  "The released documents show the court wasn’t concerned that the NSA was collecting the communications — just with how the agency was treating it. The court allowed the upstream collection to continue, but instituted tougher safeguards to prevent unauthorized use of the data and mandated that the records be destroyed sooner than other data collected."

If you think your 4th Amendment rights have been violated, take it to the Chief Justice.  That would be Roberts.  He might not agree with you that this has nothing to do with al Qaeda.   If you don't like that eleven conservative judges control this secret court - you change that at the ballot box.  

sitterdave
sitterdave

Sorry Dan. The 4th Amendment is pretty clear and, contrary to what you believe, the Supreme Court does not have the authority to nullify it. They are throwing the constitution out the window. There is a process for changing the constitution. If they believe 4th Amendment prevents them from doing what needs done legally then they need to change the amendment, not break the law and illegally collect citizens private correspondence.

drudown
drudown

@jmac @drudown 

Oh give me a break already. There is no such thing as "terrorism" as Bush/Cheney wanted everyone to believe. There are simply criminal acts. Whether or not people (of any nationality) decide to perpetrate crimes (see, e.g., felony/murder on 9/11) for some alleged "political reason" doesn't change the FACT it is just a crime that we already have laws that can handle. Bush/Cheney just wanted to remake the US in their image of their Saudi Kingdom financier but, lo and behold, they couldn't keep in power because their "no new taxes, ever" cannot be continued without killing the New Deal and why do the People want that? Because the people that failed to stop 9/11 when they easily could now contend that "Al Qaeda threat" should "kill" the 4th Amendment?

Traitors is what they are. They betrayed America and their Libertarian policies betray our way of life. 

drudown
drudown

@jmac @drudown 

As a threshold matter, you improperly assume material facts not in evidence. 

First, where is the evidence that the NSA obtained FISA court approval in advance of such an exhaustive search and seizure of law-abiding American citizens' personal records, emails, conversations, et al.? There is no such evidence.

Second, the FISA court is NOT the sole arbiter of whether or not the State Action in question (i.e., NSA activity) comports with the Bill of Rights. That is the sole purview of the Supreme Court of the United States. Moreover, each Supreme Court of the Several States arguably can hear its own citizens' claims for injunctive relief, e.g., per the 10th Amendment. The Several States didn't "waive" or "relinquish" privacy rights endowed by Natural Law because W did nothing to stop the 9/11 attacks. 

Finally, since when is the "process" for remedying the subversion of the 4th Amendment an citizen "taking it up with the Chief Justice"? Particularly here, since NOBODY knows the actual course and scope of the unlawful State action.

"To know that someone has a secret is to know half the secret itself." - Henry Ward Beecher

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@DanBruce "The terrorist threat to America is one such case, imo."

That makes you a bedwetter and an enabler to the terrorist threat. IMO. 

sitterdave
sitterdave

@DanBruce Dan, The 4th Amendment, like the 3rd Amendment, is not ambiguous like the 1st and 2nd amendments. The Courts do not have much leeway in interpreting it. While I'll give you that in extremely rare cases the courts may approve exceptions, the wholesale surveillance of any given citizen is not an exception by any stretch of the imagination. The 4th Amendment was put in place specifically to prohibit exactly this type of infringement of our rights by the government.

DanBruce
DanBruce

@sitterdave Sorry, Dave, the 4th Amendment, like all other amendments, is not absolute, and the courts and ultimately the Supreme Court can approve exceptions (e.g., a person has no Constitutional right to shout 'fire' is a crowded theater without penalty if there is no fire). The Constitution was constructed to give Congress and the courts powers that allow for flexibility when needed. The terrorist threat to America is one such case, imo.