On Tuesday, Barack Obama insisted that the US government isn’t spying on Americans by surveilling the contents of their communications. Less than two days later, the New York Times makes hash of that claim. The NSA, reports Charlie Savage, sifts through the content of “vast amounts” of electronic communications between Americans and people abroad in their search for links to terrorism, and not just the metadata:
The National Security Agency is searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans’ e-mail and text communications into and out of the country, hunting for people who mention information about foreigners under surveillance, according to intelligence officials.
The N.S.A. is not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, a practice that government officials have openly acknowledged. 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.
While it has long been known that the agency conducts extensive computer searches of data it vacuums up overseas, that it is systematically searching — without warrants — through the contents of Americans’ communications that cross the border reveals more about the scale of its secret operations.
Well, it’s not like anyone actually bought that nonsense from Obama on the Tonight Show. Even one of Obama’s former key aides, Van Jones, openly scoffed at the claim that the NSA wasn’t spying on Americans:
“Everybody knows I love this president, but this is ridiculous,” said Jones. “We do have a spying program, and we need to figure out how to balance these out.”
Jones also criticized the Obama administration’s treatment of whistleblowers.
“You are prosecuting more whistleblowers than every American president combined,” said Jones. “You can’t yuck it up and say, well, whistleblowers come on out and we’ll treat you right.”
How does the NSA choose its targets? Generously, at least in regard to cross-border collection:
To conduct the surveillance, the N.S.A. is temporarily copying and then sifting through the contents of what is apparently most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border. The senior intelligence official, who, like other former and current government officials, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the N.S.A. makes a “clone of selected communication links” to gather the communications, but declined to specify details, like the volume of the data that passes through them.
This again comes down to definitions. The FISA laws require at least one point of the communications to be outside of American territory so that the government can claim that the espionage targets a foreign source. However, the point of the collection appears to be watching what people in the US are discussing and with whom they are communicating. One could argue that such scrutiny is essential in the war on terror, and a number of people have made that argument.
However, let’s not pretend that it’s something other than having the NSA — an agency whose charter was originally to intercept foreign communications in the Cold War — turn into a domestic spy service, with all of the potential for abuse that creates.