Spy Agencies Disclose Data on ‘Backdoor’ Spying of Americans

The NSA and CIA released the numbers of Americans searched under a controversial foreign-surveillance program in 2013, while the FBI said it does not keep records of such data.

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, as seen from the air, January 29, 2010. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
June 30, 2014, 11:54 a.m.

In­tel­li­gence agen­cies are dis­clos­ing new in­form­a­tion about searches per­formed on Amer­ic­ans’ di­git­al com­mu­nic­a­tions through a con­tro­ver­sial pro­gram in­ten­ded for sur­veil­lance of for­eign crim­in­al and ter­ror­ist sus­pects.

The Of­fice of the Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence re­leased a re­port Monday de­tail­ing a meth­od of for­eign sur­veil­lance that crit­ics have claimed amounts to an un­law­ful “back­door search” of U.S. cit­izens. The gov­ern­ment claims that such data col­lec­tion is law­ful un­der Sec­tion 702 of the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act, which is de­signed to tar­get non-Amer­ic­ans reas­on­ably be­lieved to be liv­ing out­side the U.S.

But some­times the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency and oth­er in­tel­li­gence agen­cies col­lect Amer­ic­an con­tent in their vast sweeps of for­eign emails and oth­er In­ter­net data, and spe­cific­ally tar­get that in­form­a­tion.

The re­port re­veals the num­ber of “quer­ies” or searches of the con­tents of U.S. com­mu­nic­a­tions last year con­duc­ted by the NSA and the CIA. The FBI is also lis­ted but said it does not track the amount of quer­ies it car­ries out.

Last week, the gov­ern­ment re­leased a sep­ar­ate re­port re­veal­ing that U.S. spy agen­cies have spied on the In­ter­net com­mu­nic­a­tions of tens of thou­sands of In­ter­net users around the world. But Monday’s re­port, re­leased in re­sponse to a re­quest from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., provides the clearest pic­ture yet of the num­ber of Amer­ic­ans af­fected by the 702 pro­gram.

In 2013, the NSA con­duc­ted 198 searches of the con­tents of U.S. com­mu­nic­a­tions data un­der the 702 pro­gram. By com­par­is­on, it al­lowed about 9,500 searches of metadata — the dur­a­tion and num­bers of a call but not its con­tents — ac­quired via 702 in 2013.

The CIA con­duc­ted “few­er than 1,900” searches of U.S. com­mu­nic­a­tions through 702 in 2013. The FBI, mean­while, said it does not main­tain such in­form­a­tion.

“When the FBI says it con­ducts a sub­stan­tial num­ber of searches and it has no idea of what the num­ber is, it shows how flawed this sys­tem is and the con­sequences of in­ad­equate over­sight,” Wyden said in a state­ment. “This huge gap in over­sight is a prob­lem now, and will only grow as glob­al com­mu­nic­a­tions sys­tems be­come more in­ter­con­nec­ted.”

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates quickly pounced on the re­port, say­ing it il­lus­trates why Con­gress needs to pass re­forms lim­it­ing back­door searches.

“This is just the very type of back­door search­ing that nearly three out of four rep­res­ent­at­ives voted to stop just a few weeks ago,” said Kev­in Bank­ston, policy dir­ect­or of the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion’s Open Tech­no­logy In­sti­tute. “At this point, it’s clear that the U.S. gov­ern­ment is do­ing a sub­stan­tial amount of sur­veil­lance re­lated to U.S. per­sons us­ing this Sec­tion 702 au­thor­ity that’s sup­posed to be dir­ec­ted out­side of the coun­try.”

Earli­er this month, the House voted 293-123 to ap­prove an amend­ment to a de­fense ap­pro­pri­ations bill that would pre­vent the NSA from us­ing fund­ing to sup­port two of its “back­door” spy­ing pro­grams. It would ad­di­tion­ally re­quire the NSA get a war­rant be­fore read­ing any private on­line com­mu­nic­a­tions sent by Amer­ic­ans.

Both the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence and Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tees are cur­rently weigh­ing NSA re­form.

On Wed­nes­day, the Pri­vacy Civil Liber­ties Over­sight Board will re­lease re­com­mend­a­tions on how the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should re­form the 702 pro­gram in wake of rev­el­a­tions from Ed­ward Snowden that began last June.

Brendan Sasso contributed to this article.
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