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NSA collected thousands of US internet communications 'with no terror connection'

NSA collected thousands of US internet communications 'with no terror connection'
Declassified National Security Agency documents show that it unlawfully scooped up as many as 56,000 emails and other “wholly domestic” communications with no connection to terrorism annually over three years.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has authorized the release of three secret US court opinions Wednesday. The documents show how the NSA inadvertently collected tens of thousands of emails and other communications by Americans over three years, despite the fact they had no links to terrorism. 

The NSA collected huge amounts of data passing through fiber-optic cables in the US. It then stored the material, along with a selection of foreign communications. Though domestic data was not officially targeted, the agency was unable to filter out communications between Americans, the reports said.

When the NSA reported to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2011 -- three years after Congress authorized the surveillance programs that led to the improper gathering -- the court found the collection unconstitutional and ordered the agency to find ways to limit what it collected and how long it kept information. 

The judge John D. Bates said that the government had “advised the court that the volume and nature of the information it has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the court had been led to believe,” according to the declassified 86-page opinion. 

Clapper said that following the ruling the NSA changed how it gathered information so as to segregate the transactions of Americans which were deemed to be wholly domestic. In 2012, the agency destroyed the information that it had collected. 

The new disclosures depict a FISA court, lauded by President Obama and other government officials as proof the NSA operates with careful checks in place, that allowed NSA programs to continue without full understanding of their collection capabilities. Critics have called the FISA court a ‘rubber stamp’ for NSA spying. For example, in 2012, the court did not deny any of the 1,789 applications made by the US government for authority to conduct electronic surveillance and physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes, according to official documents.

Lawmakers responded to the released documents with requests to the White House for further clarification and oversight of NSA activities. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) asked for a briefing for the full Senate from NSA director Keith Alexander to discuss surveillance procedures.

“This briefing should discuss the totality of NSA operations, including but not limited to those that have already been discussed publicly,” Corker wrote to the White House.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) stressed the need for more oversight of NSA activities.

“A special advocate could force the FISA court to impose strict limits on government surveillance, to ask tough questions of Executive Branch officials, and to ensure that the government cannot engage in unconstitutional activity for years before the court finds out and shuts it down,
” Blumenthal said.

The American Civil Liberties Union's Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer reacted to the disclosures highlighting how simple such abuses in NSA surveillance programs have become.

“These opinions indicate that the NSA misrepresented its activities to the court just as it misrepresented them to Congress and the public, and they provide further evidence that current oversight mechanisms are far too feeble. More fundamentally, the documents serve as a reminder of how incredibly permissive our surveillance laws are, allowing the NSA to conduct wholesale surveillance of Americans’ communications under the banner of foreign intelligence collection. This kind of surveillance is unconstitutional, and Americans should make it very clear to their representatives that they will not tolerate it.”

In response to the myriad leaks regarding NSA spying programs, the office of the Director of National Intelligence released Wednesday a Tumblr page “to provide the public with direct access to factual information related to the lawful foreign surveillance activities carried out by the Intelligence Community.”  Though despite the new site, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was responsible for the release pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request, was first to post the newly-disclosed 2011 FISA court opinion.

President Obama alluded to the transparency site on August 9 in an address pertaining to the NSA leaks. During that speech, Obama maintained that the government has not abused surveillance programs, despite Wednesday’s disclosures suggesting otherwise.

"And if you look at the reports — even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward — all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails,”Obama said on Aug. 9. “What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC."

The new disclosures come months after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked thousands of documents to the Guardian and The Washington Post about the huge surveillance programs of US and UK spy agencies.

The British government has since made the Guardian destroy Snowden’s files under the threat of legal action, citing reasons of national security.

However, the Guardian said the material still exists in the US and Brazil, and that it will still publish relevant stories on the issue.

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