Intelligence officials disclose scope of warrantless spying

Days after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its first ever transparency report on data collected by the National Security Agency under section 702 the Foreign Intelligence Security Act, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., published a letter Monday sent to him by ODNI revealing how thousands of Americans may have been the subject of warrantless queries known as “backdoor searches.”

The letter, written by Deirdre M. Walsh, legislative affairs director at ODNI, states the NSA conducted 198 queries last year — or used an identifier like a name, phone number or email to match that subject to specific communications in a larger pool of data — on Americans for the content of communications the agency claims to have acquired legally. Likewise, the NSA conducted 9,500 queries on Americans for metadata, 36 percent of which may have been redundant queries on the same identifiers.

The CIA conducted about 1,900 queries last year related to American identifiers. The FBI doesn’t keep records distinguishing section 702 queries on Americans, which the Oregon senator said is symptomatic of a broken system.

“When the FBI says it conducts a substantial number of searches and it has no idea of what the number is, it shows how flawed this system is and the consequences of inadequate oversight,” Wyden said in a statement. “This huge gap in oversight is a problem now, and will only grow as global communications systems become more interconnected.”


Friday, ODNI revealed that in 2013, NSA search collected data on nearly 90,000 targets under section 702, which lawfully permits intelligence organizations to pull records of people “believed to use the particular facility from outside the United States and who are reasonably believed to be non-United States persons.” While Wyden supports section 702’s permission to collect data for counterterrorism of foreign threats, he said he draws the line when it comes to Americans.

“I and other reformers in Congress have argued that intelligence agencies should absolutely be permitted to search for communications pertaining to counterterrorism and other foreign threats, but if intelligence officials are deliberately searching for and reading the communications of specific Americans, the Constitution requires a warrant,” he said.

These numbers for the first time clarify how many Americans are victims of section 702. But Wyden said it might be much worse.

“While intelligence officials have often argued that it is impossible to estimate how many Americans’ communications are getting swept up by the government under Section 702, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has noted that the NSA acquires more than two hundred and fifty million Internet communications every year using Section 702, so even if US communications make up a small fraction of that total, the number of U.S. communications being collected is potentially quite large,” he said. “The scale of this activity seems to be something that could be conducted pursuant to probable cause warrants, particularly given the exceptions that are included in the bipartisan bicameral legislation that I and others have proposed.”

The House voted 293-123 in June passing an Amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would curtail intelligence agencies’ backdoor spying by cutting funding to the programs.

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