The NSA Searches US Citizens’ Cross-Border Email That Mentions Foreign Targets

It’s difficult to keep track of what the NSA does and doesn’t do, and today, the New York Times piled on. Citing “senior intelligence officials,” the paper is reporting that, under a broad interpretation of the FISA Amendments Act, the NSA intercepts communications of U.S. citizens whose communications cross borders and mention foreign targets. You don’t have to communicate with someone being targeted directly to potentially have the NSA collect and search your email.

So, if in an email to a friend in, say, France, I were to mention someone who the NSA is keeping tabs on, I could be the subject of extensive NSA surveillance of my email and text communications — legally, to boot, in the eyes of the government.

The NSA has lied, repeatedly, concerning its collection of records, content, metadata, and the like of American citizens. And, frankly, it’s become a complex enough situation that it is slightly hard to parse truth from half-truth from downright lie. However, James Clapper, current Director of National Intelligence, lied to Congress — and you — about the NSA not collecting information on American citizens. All that has happened since that moment is that the depth of his lie has increased; previously, it was phone metadata that became known as a collection target. The Times’ report goes deeper in damning Clapper as mendacious.

And who can forget the commentary of Rep. Mike Rogers, who said that Snowden was lying when he described the XKeyscore program, which was later leaked and confirmed by the former NSA director? We could go on.

The new dodge is somewhat simple. Break down the NSA’s activities into two parts: collection and the search of that information. This allows the government to occlude their activities. The Times’ piece has a perfect encapsulation of the sort of idiotic verbiage that we are currently being spoon-fed: “In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, N.S.A. collects only what it is explicitly authorized to collect.”

That’s from Judith Emmel, an NSA spokesperson. She continues to tell the Times that “the agency’s activities are deployed only in response to requirements for information to protect the country and its interests.” For more on the collection and search false dichotomy, watch this.

The crux of the search-collection split is that the NSA can hide behind search oversight rules as a canard to collect, en masse, the communications of any or all American citizens. They should not be granted this wiggle room. The two practices are inherently linked, and should be treated as part and parcel of the same dream.

Today the Times did us a favor by outlining a precise mechanism with which the NSA helps itself, as it deems fit, to the private communications of U.S. citizens, with an increasingly low level of legal requirement. Mention something in an email to, hell, Canada, that raises an NSA flag and you may have lost the right to privacy. I can almost understand the logic that led the agency to this point, but I must protest.

The revelation isn’t shocking in the face of former intelligence operatives claiming that the NSA goal is to “collect it all.” It does, however, grant us a view into the thinking of the NSA and the larger government intelligence operation. And that matters.

The Snowden effect continues apace.

Top Image Credit: Casey Newton