In a letter to NSA-skeptic Sen. Ron Wyden this week, DNI head James Clapper seems to confirm searches of the content of American citizens’ communication the administration had previously suggested was off-limits:

The Obama administration has conducted warrantless searches of Americans’ communications as part of the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations that target foreigners located outside of the U.S., the administration’s top intelligence official confirmed in a letter to Congress disclosed Tuesday.

These searches were authorized by a secret surveillance court in 2011, but it was unclear until Tuesday whether any such searches on Americans had been conducted.

The recent acknowledgement of warrantless searches on Americans offers more insight into U.S. government surveillance operations put in place after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The government has broadly interpreted these laws to allow for the collection of communications of innocent Americans, practices the Obama administration maintains are legal. But President Barack Obama has promised to review some of these programs to determine whether the government should be conducting this type of surveillance at all.

Wyden was displeased, releasing this statement with fellow Sen. Mark Udall:

“Senior officials have sometimes suggested that government agencies do not deliberately read Americans’ emails, monitor their online activity or listen to their phone calls without a warrant. However, the facts show that those suggestions were misleading, and that intelligence agencies have indeed conducted warrantless searches for Americans’ communications using the ‘back-door search’ loophole in section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” the two senators wrote. “Today’s admission by the Director of National Intelligence is further proof that meaningful surveillance reform must include closing the back-door searches loophole and requiring the intelligence community to show probable cause before deliberately searching through data collected under section 702 to find the communications of individual Americans.”


The searches were conducted, Clapper says, in the process of investigating suspected foreign threats:

The queries were part of efforts to obtain information about suspected foreign terrorists under a law that Congress passed in 2008, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote in a March 28 letter to Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and one of the most vocal critics of government surveillance.

The push for reform will continue, as everyone who suggested they probably aren’t too careful about what content they access swimming in their sea of metadata say, “toldja so.”

The disclosure is significant because it potentially opens up a new line of public and congressional scrutiny into NSA spying. Until now, most of the focus of public debate has been on restraining the NSA’s ability to collect and store bulk phone records, which include numbers dialed and call durations without the contents of conversations.

Previous Wyden vs. Clapper.