NSA loophole allows warrantless surveillance, targeting U.S. citizens

Despite claims that Americans are not spied on, a back door enables the agency to search individuals' emails, calls

By Natasha Lennard
Published August 9, 2013 5:39PM (EDT)

The leaks continue to pour forth revealing the totalized surveillance of American communications by the National Security Agency. Now, it appears that the communications of individual U.S. citizens can be specifically targeted, not just swept up in the spy dragnet. On Friday, the Guardian published the latest revelation, based on information gleaned by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, namely that a legal loophole enables the NSA to search through the vast hoards of data it keeps on communications within and going out of the U.S., and can search for U.S. citizens' emails and phone calls. The findings stand at odds with claims in recent weeks by government officials that Americans are not targeted by the NSA's vast surveillance programs.

As the Guardian reported:

The previously undisclosed rule change allows NSA operatives to hunt for individual Americans' communications using their name or other identifying information. Senator Ron Wyden told the Guardian the NSA's authorities provide loopholes that allow "warrantless searches for the phone calls or emails of law-abiding Americans".

The authority, approved in 2011, appears to contrast with repeated assurances from Barack Obama and senior intelligence officials to both Congress and the American public that the privacy of US citizens is protected from the NSA's dragnet surveillance programs.

The intelligence data is being gathered under Section 702 of the of the Fisa Amendments Act (FAA), which gives the NSA authority to target without warrant the communications of foreign targets, who must be non-U.S. citizens and outside the U.S. at the point of collection.

... Assurances from Obama and senior administration officials to the American public about the privacy of their communications have relied on the strict definition of what constitutes "targeting" while making no mention of the permission to search for U.S. data within material that has already been collected.

The day after the Guardian revealed details of the NSA's Prism program, President Obama said: "Now, with respect to the internet and emails, this doesn't apply to US citizens and it doesn't apply to people living in the United States."

UPDATE: A previous version of this story mistakenly attributed the information on the loophole as originating from Sen. Wyden. Rather, Wyden was commenting; the information came from Snowden's leaks.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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D-ore. Dragnets Edward Snowden Fisa Nsa Privacy Ron Wyden Spying Warrantless Surveillance