U.S. Government Denies Reports That NSA Listens To Domestic Calls Without Legal Authorization

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Yesterday, a CNET story that alleged that the NSA disclosed during a secret Capitol Hill briefing that its analysts can listen to domestic phone calls “simply based on an analyst deciding that,” got a lot of play in the tech and political blogosphere. Today, however, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a statement that denounces this story as “incorrect.”

The CNET story was based on a comment by Rep. Jerrold Nadler who, according to the reporter, was told by the NSA that ” the contents of a phone call could be accessed ‘simply based on an analyst deciding that.’” If true, the idea that an analyst’s hunch was sufficient to listen to domestic phone conversations would have been quite a bombshell.

According to ODNI, “the statement that a single analyst can eavesdrop on domestic communications without proper legal authorization is incorrect and was not briefed to Congress.” ODNI states that members of Congress were only briefed about the implementations of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which ” targets foreigners located overseas for a valid foreign intelligence purpose.”

As ODNI stated before, this regulation can’t be used to target Americans. As many pundits have noted, however, the scope of these programs makes it likely that domestic calls and other communications will get caught up in the dragnet, too. The government also just needs a 51% confidence that the target of the surveillance is not American or a legal citizen.

Previously, the U.S.’s Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, also argued that the recent revelations around the NSA’s PRISM program contained “numerous inaccuracies” and that PRISM couldn’t be used to mine data and ““intentionally target any U.S. citizen, or any other U.S. person.”

Since publishing the original story, CNET changed the headline of its post from  “NSA admits listening to U.S. phone calls without warrants” to “NSA spying flap extends to contents of U.S. phone calls” and attributed Rep. Nadler as the source of the main quote. The main gist of the story has remained the same.