Intelligence Director Clapper Finally Admits NSA Searched Americans’ Emails and Calls without Warrants

Thursday, April 03, 2014
James Clapper

The U.S. government’s top intelligence official has admitted, after previously refusing to confirm, that spy agencies have delved into the emails and phone calls of Americans.


In a letter dated March 28, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence (DNI), informed a key member of Congress that the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency had probed the personal communications of U.S. citizens.


Clapper’s admission to Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a member of the Senate intelligence committee, came in contrast to what the DNI told the panel in January, when he refused to state if such activity had taken place.


Wyden had characterized the searches as a “backdoor” effort to access Americans’ personal emails and phone calls without a warrant.


Under the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, the NSA was authorized to intercept phone calls and emails without a warrant and on domestic soil, but only if the targets were noncitizens living abroad.


But three years later, a loophole to this rule was established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorized the NSA to search for “U.S. person identifiers” in the vast repository of bulk communications intercepted by the agency. This change meant the NSA could snoop on Americans’ emails and phone calls as long as they had been in contact with a foreign target. The change was not made public until whistleblower Edward Snowden released a document last year that mentioned it.


In January, Wyden asked Clapper whether any such searches had been conducted. Clapper declined to state at the hearing, but provided his answer in the March 28 letter.


“There have been queries, using US person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence targeting non-US persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States,” Clapper wrote. “These queries were performed pursuant to minimization procedures approved by the Fisa court and consistent with the statute and the fourth amendment.” Clapper did not specify how many times Americans’ communications had been intercepted.


In response to the correspondence, Wyden and another Democrat, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, issued a statement that expressed their concerns over NSA spying on Americans.


“It is now clear to the public that the list of ongoing intrusive surveillance practices by the N.S.A. includes not only bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, but also warrantless searches of the content of Americans’ personal communications,” Wyden and Udall said. “This is unacceptable. It raises serious constitutional questions, and poses a real threat to the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans.”


Clapper’s admission goes against President Barack Obama’s assurance last year that his administration was not prying into people’s communications.


“When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program’s about,” Obama said in June. “As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Letter Tells of U.S. Searches for Emails and Calls (by Charlie Savage, New York Times)

NSA Performed Warrantless Searches on Americans' Calls and Emails – Clapper (by Spencer Ackerman and James Ball, The Guardian)

Letter to Senator Ron Wyden (James Clapper) (pdf)

Should National Intelligence Director Clapper be Charged with a Felony for Lying in Sworn Senate Testimony? (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

U.S. Spies Collect 3 Billion Pieces of Intelligence a Day from Computer and Telephone Networks Worldwide (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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