A court permitted the NSA to collect information about governments in 193 countries and foreign institutions like the World Bank, according to a secret document the Washington Post published Monday.
The certification issued by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2010 shows the NSA has the authority to “intercept through U.S. companies not just the communications of its overseas targets, but any communications about its targets as well,” according to the Post’s report. Only four countries in the world — Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — were exempt from the agreement, due to existing no-spying agreements that the Post highlights in this document about the group of countries, known as “Five Eyes” with the U.S.
The secret certification from 2010 was part of a trove of documents that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked to reporters at The Washington Post and The Guardian last year. In addition to permitting the NSA to collect information about most countries, it also authorizes the NSA to target institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The documents reveal the NSA had even more free rein when it came to surveilling foreign individuals than was previously known, raising major concerns about the privacy implications this program could have, even for Americans domestically.
President Barack Obama said the U.S. should no longer spy on foreign heads of state and said programs “shall be as tailored as feasible,” when proposing reforms to the NSA programs in January. If there’s anything to take away after a first look at Monday’s revelations, it’s that the programs are far from tailored.
The Post reports the NSA is not “necessarily” collecting intelligence on all of the countries identified in the documents, but it does have the authority to. Former government officials defended the inclusion of almost every country, saying it could be necessary in the event of an unexpected humanitarian crisis where the military needed to evacuate Americans.
The documents published also revealed new information about one of the most controversial NSA practices — collecting the emails and phone calls of foreign individuals and institutions under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act.
An affidavit in support of the secret certification published Monday states foreign individuals can be targeted if the NSA believes they “possess, are expected to receive and/or are likely to communicate foreign intelligence information concerning these foreign powers.”
This means academics or journalists who regularly correspond with foreign governments could easily be targeted if the NSA has determined they possess information that could be used for foreign intelligence.
But the privacy ramifications of these documents are not limited to communications of foreigners. The court approved rules that also allow communications about targets to be swept up, not just the targets’ communications. If a target’s email address or phone number is even mentioned in another person’s email, that communication becomes fair game for the NSA. So in theory under the rules revealed in these documents, the NSA could intercept an email from an American journalist if it mentioned a target’s phone number or email address.
In a 2011 FISA court opinion published by the Post, a judge said the NSA could be collecting as many as 46,000 domestic emails annually that either mentioned a target’s email address or phone number. These communications are known as an “about” collection.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has pushed to reign in the NSA programs, and told The Post when Section 702 was passed in 2008 that most Americans had no idea Americans’ communications would be collected because they contained targets’ contact information.
“If ‘about the target’ collection were limited to genuine national security threats, there would be very little privacy impact,” Wyden told the Post. “In fact, this collection is much broader than that, and it is scooping up huge amounts of Americans’ wholly domestic communications.”
The Washington Post’s article Monday comes more than a year after the original Snowden revelations and one day after the newly appointed NSA director downplayed the impact of the leaks. Legislation that would limit the scope of the NSA’s programs has passed through the House but still needs to make it through the Senate.