James Clapper confirms that NSA conducted warrantless searches on Americans

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

US Capitol. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.In a letter to Congress released on Tuesday, the US government confirmed what we all knew (or at least suspected) – the National Security Agency has conducted warrantless searches on Americans' private telephone and email conversations.

In a letter to Senator Ron Wyden, who serves on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, James R. Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, said that the NSA exploited loopholes in the system to perform searches on US citizens' communications, an activity that usually requires a warrant to be issued.

Clapper said in the letter that the NSA, which has a legal mandate for collecting intelligence on foreign nationals under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA), had also collected data from its own citizens due to their association with foreign targets, even if by degrees of separation.

It had been unclear up until now whether the security agency had actually searched the information specifically collected from US residents but Clapper's letter, dated 28 March and in response to Senator Wyden's request for clarification on whether the NSA had indeed conducted warrantless searches on Americans, confirms that it has:

As reflected in the August 2013 Semiannual Assessment of Compliance with Procedures and Guidelines Issued Pursuant to Section 702, which we declassified and released on August 21, 2013, there have been queries, using U.S. person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence by targeting non U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the U.S. pursuant to Section 702 of FISA.

In an emailed statement yesterday Wyden and Senator Mark Udall said that the spying is unacceptable and proves the existence of a loophole that allows the NSA to illegally spy on US citizens, who may have no connections with terrorism or other criminal activity:

It raises serious constitutional questions and poses a real threat to the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans. Senior officials have sometimes suggested that government agencies do not deliberately read Americans' emails, monitor their online activity or listen to their phone calls without a warrant. However, the facts show that those suggestions were misleading.

It is now clear to the public that the list of ongoing intrusive surveillance practices by the NSA includes not only bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, but also warrantless searches of the content of Americans’ personal communications.

Clapper, who did not divulge just how many Americans were affected by the searches, finished his letter by saying:

These queries were performed pursuant to minimization procedures approved by the FISA court and consistent with the statute and the Fourth Amendment. As you know, when Congress reauthorized Section 702, the proposal to restrict such queries was specifically raised and ultimately not adopted.

This is the first time that a senior US official has publicly admitted that the NSA conducted such searches on US citizens, despite the fact that whistleblower Edward Snowden had already leaked documents confirming that to be the case.

Our American readers will no doubt be interested to see where Clapper's admission leads – after all, they are supposed to be protected from unwarranted searches and seizures by the Fourth Amendment, not to mention the fact that the Obama administration has repeatedly denied that the NSA targets Americans.

In the meantime, Wyden urged President Obama to halt the spying with immediate effect, and without waiting for Congress to pass legislation, telling NBC's Meet the Press:

I believe the president ought to make the transition right away. I believe strongly we ought to ban all dragnet surveillance on law-abiding Americans, not just phone records but also medical records, purchases and others.

Image of US Capitol courtesy of Shutterstock.

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7 Responses to James Clapper confirms that NSA conducted warrantless searches on Americans

  1. Boom · 121 days ago

    > "I believe strongly we ought to ban all dragnet surveillance on law-abiding Americans..."

    But then Google would go out of business!

  2. John · 121 days ago

    Shock! Awe! US government doing illegal things? I am so shocked and awed. Come do your worst!

  3. So who is going to go to jail for this? Who is going to spend some time behind bars for abusing the constitution and US citizens?

    • Catman · 118 days ago

      You will buddy, for asking the wrong question. Expect a no-knock on your door around 3 am!

  4. Andrew · 120 days ago

    despite all of this I guess nothing will happen and no one will pay the price.
    I guess it is a case of them against us.

  5. Aaron · 120 days ago

    Electronic spying is only a part of a greater whole.

    Just too much to unravel and talk about, like a plate of sticky angel hair pasta. Different strands, but part of the same problem.

    Hang on, the ride only gets rougher, and it is all downhill.

    It is only a phase we are going through. It is the transition from the "American Republic" to the "American Empire".

    A former president has said we no longer have a functioning democracy. I think he is right.

    The legislature and judicial have been bought and rendered powerless, and the executive is issuing royal decrees to impose it's will

    The power of the people has been captured and is being held by the favored few at the top.
    These few have no problem with the concept: "To fight the enemy, we have become like the enemy".

    "The enemy" being defined by: " Those not with us, are agin us".

    The few believe:: "What is good for us, is good for all, so everything we do must be good., and we can do no wrong".

    Everything that has been criticized in others, we have done, and are doing.

    Torture, sorry I meant extreme questioning.

    The list is long, and slowly being revealed.

    It is becoming apparent we have been doing it all, only better, because, until now, it was kept from view.
    Other countries are right not to trust the US, because we are not who we say we are, and the things we say we have not done, we have.

    Badly needed humanitarian aid is suspected, and sometimes rejected because it almost certain to have US operatives like termites in wood.

    Nasty little bits like free garbage collection in poor districts collecting DNA to identify who the US wishes to kill, once revealed has got to leave a scar.

  6. TonyG · 119 days ago

    And how much of this would we know without Snowden?

    I don't suppose the US government will be mature enough to accept that this is a case of whistleblowing that has been justified with what is now coming out. The fact that it might have damaged intelligence operations should not override wrongdoing by the authorities.

    The best thing they could do would be to appoint him to a committee to investigate what is going wrong and set new ethical standards of behaviour.

    At the end of the day, a government and society only has legitimacy if it stands ethically above the bad guys. You cannot set yourself up as morally superior if you don't practice what you preach.

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About the author

Lee Munson is the founder of Security FAQs, a social media manager with BH Consulting and a blogger with a huge passion for information security.