June 20, 2013

Guidelines of NSA's surveillance program revealed

Documents show the steps taken to protect privacy, but critics say the agency has too much latitude.


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This Sept. 19, 2007, file photo, shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md. The National Security Agency may keep the e-mails and telephone calls of citizens and legal residents if the communications contain "significant foreign intelligence" or evidence of a crime, according to classified documents that lay out procedures for targeting foreigners and for guarding Americans' privacy.

The Associated Press

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"When NSA proposes to direct surveillance at a target, it does so because NSA has already learned something about the target," according to the targeting rules. Often, that lead comes from the CIA or a law enforcement agency.

The NSA uses whatever details are contained in that lead to make an initial assessment of whether it is being asked to eavesdrop on an overseas target. But the agency then takes other steps depending on the circumstances, such as scanning databases "to which NSA has access but did not originate" for clues about location.

To prevent U.S. citizens and legal residents from being targeted, NSA keeps a database of phone numbers and e-mail addresses associated with people thought to be living in the United States. New requests are compared to the records on that list. Matches are considered signals to put the surveillance on hold.

The NSA then goes through a sequence of potential additional checks, according to the targeting document. It may look at area codes and the ordinary data packets that accompany e-mails as they cross the Internet. And it may check contact lists associated with e-mail accounts, as well as massive "knowledge databases" that contain CIA intelligence reports.

After it begins intercepting calls or e-mails, the NSA is supposed to continue to look for signs that the individual it is monitoring has entered the United States, which would prompt a halt in surveillance and possibly a notification to the FBI.

The document on "minimization" spells out rules for protecting privacy, some of which have been described publicly. The rules protect not just citizens, but foreigners in the United States.

If domestic communications lack significant foreign intelligence information, they must be promptly destroyed. Communications concerning Americans may not be kept more than five years.

If a target who was outside the U.S. enters the country, the monitoring must stop immediately.

Communications between a person under criminal indictment in the United States and his or her attorney may be preserved if they contain foreign intelligence information. The portions that do not may not be reviewed or used in any criminal prosecution. And any proposed sharing of the communications must be reviewed by the NSA general counsel first.

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