When the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted the online accounts of legally targeted foreigners over a four-year period it also swept up innocent and often personal emails from ordinary Internet users, according to an investigation by The Washington Post.
The Post’s analysis of a large trove of conversations intercepted by the NSA, including information that Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor, had not revealed before, suggested that roughly 9 in 10 communications involved people who were not the direct targets of surveillance. Their conversations were collected under Section 702 of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, which has come up for debate since Snowden’s disclosures began last year.
Nearly half of those surveillance files contained names, email addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents, The Post reported. While the federal agency tried to protect their privacy by masking more than 65,000 such references to individuals, the newspaper said it found nearly 900 additional email addresses that could be strongly linked to U.S. citizens or residents.
At the same time, the intercepted messages contained material of considerable intelligence value, the Post reported, such as information about a secret overseas nuclear project, double-dealing by an ostensible ally, a military calamity that befell an unfriendly power and the identities of aggressive intruders into U.S. computer networks.
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On Sunday, the Obama administration sought to play down the new disclosures, saying the agency routinely filters out the communications of Americans and information that is clearly of no intelligence value.
By law, the NSA may target only foreigners with its surveillance. The administration has made no secret that, as it vacuums data from around the globe, it sometimes inadvertently collects information from innocent people, including some Americans. The Post story put that collection in deeply personal terms. It said baby pictures, risqué photos from webcam chats, medical records and conversations about sexual liaisons were among the NSA’s documents.
The Post story suggests that Snowden, who fled to Russia after providing internal NSA documents to reporters last year, had far greater access to people’s personal communications than had been previously disclosed. Government officials have said they do not believe he had any access to “raw” intercepts, the actual transcripts or audio of data as it was collected.
But the trove suggests, for the first time, that he did have access to what the intelligence agencies call “evaluated and minimized traffic.” That is material that analysts concluded had potential intelligence value and that had been filtered to remove references to Americans inside the United States.
The latest material from Snowden is significant because the government has been adamant that it safeguards the phone calls and emails it intercepts. If Snowden has been able to take those materials from the NSA, it would suggest his access was not limited to details of collection programs, but included at least some actual intelligence information.
On Sunday, Robert Litt, general counsel to the director of national intelligence, said that The Post’s story cites “figures that suggest foreign intelligence collection intercepts the communications of nine ‘bystanders’ for every ‘legally targeted’ foreigner.”
“These reports simply discuss the kind of incidental interception of communications that we have always said takes place under Section 702,” he said, referring to the law that governs the collection of information on foreigners. “We target only valid foreign intelligence targets under that authority, and the most that you could conclude from these news reports is that each valid foreign intelligence target talks to an average of nine people.”
The material reviewed by The Post included roughly 160,000 intercepted email and instant-message conversations, some of them hundreds of pages long, and 7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts. It spanned President Obama’s first term, 2009 to 2012, and was provided to The Post by Snowden.
The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted were cataloged and recorded, The Post reported.
— Information from The Associated Press is included.