Court files: NSA engaged in “systematic overcollection”

Newly declassified documents show FISA judges shocked by extent of metadata trawling sought by the spy agency

Topics: declassified, redacted, FISA, FISC, ACLU, eff, Surveillance, metadata, dragnet, NSA, Edward Snowden, James Clapper, , ,

Court files: NSA engaged in "systematic overcollection"Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Newly declassified (although heavily redacted) government documents revealed for the first time last Monday how the secretive FISA court enabled the NSA to begins its vast dragnet program surveilling Americans’ online metadata.

The FISA files illustrate how the spy agency’s mass surveillance practices were inscribed into law, but also highlight how even the FISA judges were concerned and surprised by the extent of the dragnet spycraft. Court orders also released Monday show that the NSA “systematically” skirted the rules by engaging in consistent “overcollection.”

One court document published shows how a FISA judge ruled, along with a single 1979 Supreme Court decision on which the NSA still relies, that metadata should enjoy no Fourth Amendment protection. This, despite the fact that technologists have agreed that metadata provides an immense amount of information on persons and their networks.

The trove of declassified documents was released Monday night by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in response to FOIA lawsuits from groups including the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Significantly, the files show how even FISA judges were taken aback by the extent of mass surveillance sought by the spy agency. “The raw volume of the proposed collection is enormous,” wrote former chief FISA court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claims the document release evidenced the executive’s transparency efforts with regards to government surveillance practices. “Release of these documents reflects the executive branch’s continued commitment to making information about this intelligence collection program publicly available when appropriate and consistent with the national security of the United States,” he said.

However, the heavily redacted files smack of a face-saving effort in the broadening wake of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s leaks. Furthermore, if the executive’s intention was to reassure the public about NSA activity, the documents may have the opposite effect. The declassified files depict an agency hungry to hoard Americans’ communications data — even to the discomfort of some FISA judges — regularly skirting legal constraints to do so, and relying on a flimsy, dated determination of the value of metadata.

The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer commented, as the New York Times reported, that the documents also reveal the extensive power of the secretive FISA court to determine surveillance practices. “A lot of the most important and far-reaching decisions of the past decade w[ere] issued by this court, which meets in secret and hears only from the government and doesn’t publish its decisions,” Jaffer said.

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

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...