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[liberationtech] NSA wiretapping without a warrant

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Fri Jun 21 03:20:16 PDT 2013

Revealed: the top secret rules that allow NSA to use US data without a

Fisa court submissions show broad scope of procedures governing NSA's
surveillance of Americans' communication

• Document one: procedures used by NSA to target non-US persons

• Document two: procedures used by NSA to minimise data collected from US

Glenn Greenwald and James Ball, Thursday 20 June 2013 19.34 BST

Jump to comments (1045)

The documents show that discretion as to who is actually targeted lies
directly with the NSA's analysts. Photograph: Martin Rogers/Workbook

Top secret documents submitted to the court that oversees surveillance by US
intelligence agencies show the judges have signed off on broad orders which
allow the NSA to make use of information "inadvertently" collected from
domestic US communications without a warrant.

The Guardian is publishing in full two documents submitted to the secret
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (known as the Fisa court), signed by
Attorney General Eric Holder and stamped 29 July 2009. They detail the
procedures the NSA is required to follow to target "non-US persons" under its
foreign intelligence powers and what the agency does to minimize data
collected on US citizens and residents in the course of that surveillance.

The documents show that even under authorities governing the collection of
foreign intelligence from foreign targets, US communications can still be
collected, retained and used.

The procedures cover only part of the NSA's surveillance of domestic US
communications. The bulk collection of domestic call records, as first
revealed by the Guardian earlier this month, takes place under rolling court
orders issued on the basis of a legal interpretation of a different
authority, section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The Fisa court's oversight role has been referenced many times by Barack
Obama and senior intelligence officials as they have sought to reassure the
public about surveillance, but the procedures approved by the court have
never before been publicly disclosed.

The top secret documents published today detail the circumstances in which
data collected on US persons under the foreign intelligence authority must be
destroyed, extensive steps analysts must take to try to check targets are
outside the US, and reveals how US call records are used to help remove US
citizens and residents from data collection.

However, alongside those provisions, the Fisa court-approved policies allow
the NSA to:

• Keep data that could potentially contain details of US persons for up to
five years;

• Retain and make use of "inadvertently acquired" domestic communications if
they contain usable intelligence, information on criminal activity, threat of
harm to people or property, are encrypted, or are believed to contain any
information relevant to cybersecurity;

• Preserve "foreign intelligence information" contained within
attorney-client communications;

• Access the content of communications gathered from "U.S. based machine[s]"
or phone numbers in order to establish if targets are located in the US, for
the purposes of ceasing further surveillance.

The broad scope of the court orders, and the nature of the procedures set out
in the documents, appear to clash with assurances from President Obama and
senior intelligence officials that the NSA could not access Americans' call
or email information without warrants.

The documents also show that discretion as to who is actually targeted under
the NSA's foreign surveillance powers lies directly with its own analysts,
without recourse to courts or superiors – though a percentage of targeting
decisions are reviewed by internal audit teams on a regular basis.

Since the Guardian first revealed the extent of the NSA's collection of US
communications, there have been repeated calls for the legal basis of the
programs to be released. On Thursday, two US congressmen introduced a bill
compelling the Obama administration to declassify the secret legal
justifications for NSA surveillance.

The disclosure bill, sponsored by Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, and
Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican, is a complement to one proposed in the
Senate last week. It would "increase the transparency of the Fisa Court and
the state of the law in this area," Schiff told the Guardian. "It would give
the public a better understanding of the safeguards, as well as the scope of
these programs."

Section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act (FAA), which was renewed for five
years last December, is the authority under which the NSA is allowed to
collect large-scale data, including foreign communications and also
communications between the US and other countries, provided the target is

FAA warrants are issued by the Fisa court for up to 12 months at a time, and
authorise the collection of bulk information – some of which can include
communications of US citizens, or people inside the US. To intentionally
target either of those groups requires an individual warrant.

One-paragraph order

One such warrant seen by the Guardian shows that they do not contain detailed
legal rulings or explanation. Instead, the one-paragraph order, signed by a
Fisa court judge in 2010, declares that the procedures submitted by the
attorney general on behalf of the NSA are consistent with US law and the
fourth amendment.

Those procedures state that the "NSA determines whether a person is a
non-United States person reasonably believed to be outside the United States
in light of the totality of the circumstances based on the information
available with respect to that person, including information concerning the
communications facility or facilities used by that person".

It includes information that the NSA analyst uses to make this determination
- including IP addresses, statements made by the potential target, and other
information in the NSA databases, which can include public information and
data collected by other agencies.

Where the NSA has no specific information on a person's location, analysts
are free to presume they are overseas, the document continues.

"In the absence of specific information regarding whether a target is a
United States person," it states "a person reasonably believed to be located
outside the United States or whose location is not known will be presumed to
be a non-United States person unless such person can be positively identified
as a United States person."

If it later appears that a target is in fact located in the US, analysts are
permitted to look at the content of messages, or listen to phone calls, to
establish if this is indeed the case.

Referring to steps taken to prevent intentional collection of telephone
content of those inside the US, the document states: "NSA analysts may
analyze content for indications that a foreign target has entered or intends
to enter the United States. Such content analysis will be conducted according
to analytic and intelligence requirements and priorities."

Details set out in the "minimization procedures", regularly referred to in
House and Senate hearings, as well as public statements in recent weeks, also
raise questions as to the extent of monitoring of US citizens and residents.

NSA minimization procedures signed by Holder in 2009 set out that once a
target is confirmed to be within the US, interception must stop immediately.
However, these circumstances do not apply to large-scale data where the NSA
claims it is unable to filter US communications from non-US ones.

The NSA is empowered to retain data for up to five years and the policy
states "communications which may be retained include electronic
communications acquired because of limitations on the NSA's ability to filter

Even if upon examination a communication is found to be domestic – entirely
within the US – the NSA can appeal to its director to keep what it has found
if it contains "significant foreign intelligence information", "evidence of a
crime", "technical data base information" (such as encrypted communications),
or "information pertaining to a threat of serious harm to life or property".

Domestic communications containing none of the above must be destroyed.
Communications in which one party was outside the US, but the other is a
US-person, are permitted for retention under FAA rules.

The minimization procedure adds that these can be disseminated to other
agencies or friendly governments if the US person is anonymised, or including
the US person's identity under certain criteria.

Holder's 'minimization procedure' says once a target is confirmed to be in
the US, interception of communication must stop. Photo: Nicholas
Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

A separate section of the same document notes that as soon as any intercepted
communications are determined to have been between someone under US criminal
indictment and their attorney, surveillance must stop. However, the material
collected can be retained, if it is useful, though in a segregated database:

"The relevant portion of the communication containing that conversation will
be segregated and the National Security Division of the Department of Justice
will be notified so that appropriate procedures may be established to protect
such communications from review or use in any criminal prosecution, while
preserving foreign intelligence information contained therein," the document

In practice, much of the decision-making appears to lie with NSA analysts,
rather than the Fisa court or senior officials.

A transcript of a 2008 briefing on FAA from the NSA's general counsel sets
out how much discretion NSA analysts possess when it comes to the specifics
of targeting, and making decisions on who they believe is a non-US person.
Referring to a situation where there has been a suggestion a target is within
the US.

"Once again, the standard here is a reasonable belief that your target is
outside the United States. What does that mean when you get information that
might lead you to believe the contrary? It means you can't ignore it. You
can't turn a blind eye to somebody saying: 'Hey, I think so and so is in the
United States.' You can't ignore that. Does it mean you have to completely
turn off collection the minute you hear that? No, it means you have to do
some sort of investigation: 'Is that guy right? Is my target here?" he says.

"But, if everything else you have says 'no' (he talked yesterday, I saw him
on TV yesterday, even, depending on the target, he was in Baghdad) you can
still continue targeting but you have to keep that in mind. You can't put it
aside. You have to investigate it and, once again, with that new information
in mind, what is your reasonable belief about your target's location?"

The broad nature of the court's oversight role, and the discretion given to
NSA analysts, sheds light on responses from the administration and internet
companies to the Guardian's disclosure of the PRISM program. They have stated
that the content of online communications is turned over to the NSA only
pursuant to a court order. But except when a US citizen is specifically
targeted, the court orders used by the NSA to obtain that information as part
of Prism are these general FAA orders, not individualized warrants specific
to any individual.

Once armed with these general orders, the NSA is empowered to compel
telephone and internet companies to turn over to it the communications of any
individual identified by the NSA. The Fisa court plays no role in the
selection of those individuals, nor does it monitor who is selected by the

The NSA's ability to collect and retain the communications of people in the
US, even without a warrant, has fuelled congressional demands for an estimate
of how many Americans have been caught up in surveillance.

Two US senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall – both members of the Senate
intelligence committee – have been seeking this information since 2011, but
senior White House and intelligence officials have repeatedly insisted that
the agency is unable to gather such statistics.

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