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New Snowden leak shows how the NSA gets away with domestic spying

Published time: August 09, 2013 18:15
National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland (AFP Photo)

National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland (AFP Photo)

Newly leaked National Security Agency documents published by the Guardian reveal that the NSA can scour vast databases of personal information by searching for the names, email addresses and other identifiers of United States citizens.

More than two months after the Guardian first published leaked NSA files attributed to former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the paper wrote Friday that their source has also supplied documents showing that the US intelligence community can conduct warrantless searches of communications tied to Americans that are collected under legal authority provided through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Changes made to FISA in 2008, specifically Section 702, gave US investigators the ability to collect the communications of Americans if one of the parties involved was reasonable suspected to be overseas. And while proponents of this program, including US President Barack Obama, have defended against allegations that the US does not conduct domestic spying, new documents supplied by Snowden suggest that the NSA can query the names of Americans in order to search that very data.

The previously undisclosed rule change allows NSA operatives to hunt for individual Americans' communications using their name or other identifying information,” James Ball and Spencer Ackerman wrote for the Guardian.

According to the journalists, the latest Snowden leak shows for the first time ever that the NSA can search databases of intelligence collected through Section 702 for the communications of specific US individuals.

"While the FAA 702 minimization procedures approved on 3 October 2011 now allow for use of certain United States person names and identifiers as query terms when reviewing collected FAA 702 data," the Guardian quotes from the document, "analysts may NOT/NOT [not repeat not] implement any USP [US persons] queries until an effective oversight process has been developed by NSA and agreed to by DOJ/ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence]."

Ball and Ackerman say they have been unable to determine if any oversight processes have been implemented since June 2012, when they believe the Section 702 memo supplied by Snowden was last updated.

The Guardian’s latest revelation comes but three days after Pres. Obama told talk show host Jay Leno, “We don’t have a domestic spying program.”

"What we do have are some mechanisms where we can track a phone number or an email address that we know is connected to some sort of terrorist threat,” the president said during a Tuesday night interview.

In response, former Obama adviser Van Jones told CNN, “[W]e do have a domestic spying program, and what we need to be able to do is figure out how to balance these things, not pretend like there’s no balancing to be done.”

In-between Obama’s remark and the Friday publication of the Guardian, the New York Times reported that the NSA copies all overseas messages either sent or received by Americans and then scans them to find references to people or subjects thought tied to terrorists. The latest leaked Snowden doc suggests the NSA can do much more though, going as far as to authorize the agency to search for names, email addresses, IP addresses, telephone numbers and other “identifiers” of US citizens without needing a warrant.

Neither the NSA nor Office of the Director of National Intelligence responded to the Guardian’s requests for comment, but Pres. Obama is expected to weigh in on the topic of federal surveillance during a previously scheduled press conference slated for Friday afternoon.