Thousands of Americans became targets for government spying through “backdoor” warrantless electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies last year according to a letter from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The director’s office sent the disclosure to Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden in response to a question asked during an intelligence committee hearing on the USA FREEDOM Act NSA reform bill. The office went on to explain such surveillance was not justified by exploiting a legal “loophole,” which the House voted to close last week.
Said loophole refers specifically to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s Section 702, which gives the government the authority to collect information on targets “reasonably believed to be outside of the U.S. at the time of collection.” That information can include the communications of Americans swept up while surveilling foreign targets, which is stored by the agency and accessible by search query by NSA and other members of the intelligence community.
The signals intelligence agency is forbidden by law to directly target Americans in such a way, and is not supposed to engage in “reverse-targeting,” or choosing a foreign targets to inadvertently surveil U.S. citizens — hence the term “backdoor.”
According to the letter from ODNI, NSA used such search queries to examine the communications content of 198 U.S. citizens last year, and made another 9,500 metadata queries into communications belonging to an unknown number of Americans.
The CIA conducted 1,900 such searches “using specific U.S. person identifiers” in the same timeframe. The FBI also has access to certain Section 702 data, but does not keep track of the number of search queries that include identifiers belonging to U.S. citizens.
“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 Monday statement responding to the letter.
“The findings transmitted to me raise questions about whether the FBI is exercising any internal controls over the use of backdoor searches including who and how many government employees can access the personal data of individual Americans.”
Wyden pointed out that while the intelligence community continually asserts the impossibility of estimating how many Americans’ are having their communications collected under Section 702, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has already put the overall number of domestic and international Internet communications collected by NSA at more than 250 million.
“So even if U.S. communications make up a small fraction of that total, the number of U.S. communications being collected is potentially quite large,” Wyden said.