Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of the United States, Canada and Mexico

NSA Surveillance Leaks: Background and Issues for Congress*

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of the United States, Canada and Mexico

NSA Surveillance Leaks: Background and Issues for Congress*

Article excerpt


Recent media stories about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance address unauthorized disclosures of two different intelligence collection programs. These programs arise from provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). However, they rely on separate authorities, collect different types of information, and raise different policy questions. As such, where possible, the information contained in this report distinguishes between the two. For both programs, there is a tension between the speed and convenience with which the government can access data of possible intelligence value and the mechanisms intended to safeguard civil liberties. The first program collects and stores in bulk domestic phone records that some argue could be gathered to equal effect through more focused records requests. The second program targets the electronic communications of non-U.S. citizens but may incidentally collect information about Americans.

The following sections address (1) what information is being collected; (2) the legal basis for the collection; (3) existing oversight mechanisms; and (4) arguments for and against the two programs. The last section of this report discusses legislation that has been proposed in response to information disclosed about NSA surveillance. Because documents leaked to the news media may be classified, CRS is precluded from providing a detailed analysis of the content of those documents. The information in this report is based largely on public comments from intelligence officials and Members of Congress.


Domestic Collection of Domestic Phone Records-collected under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT ACT: On Wednesday, June 5, 2013, The Guardian reported that NSA collects in bulk the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon Wireless, pursuant to an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).1 Intelligence officials and leaders of the congressional intelligence committees have confirmed the existence of this domestic phone records collection program, although they have not identified the companies providing the records. It has been alleged but not confirmed that similar orders have been sent to other telecommunications providers.2 The court order disclosed by The Guardian was a three-month extension of a program that has been going on for seven years.3 The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has acknowledged the breadth of the program, analogizing it to -a huge library with literally millions of volumes of books," but has stated that data about Americans in the possession of the United States government can only be accessed under specific circumstances.4

The program collects -metadata"-a term used in this context to refer to data about a phone call but not the phone conversation itself.5 Intelligence officials have stated that the data are limited to the number that was dialed from, the number that was dialed to, and the date and duration of the call.6 The data must be destroyed within five years of acquisition.7 Information collected does not include the location of the call (beyond the area code identified in the phone number), the content of the call, or the identity of the subscriber.8 However, some civil liberties advocates have argued that a telephone number today is essentially a unique identifier that can be easily tied to a person's identity by other means and that the distinction between a telephone number and subscriber identity is therefore insignificant.

On June 27, 2013, The Guardian published an article alleging that NSA previously collected the metadata for Internet-based communications (email being the prime example) for Americans inside the United States.9 A spokesman for the DNI confirmed The Guardian's account but said this program was discontinued in 2011. Intelligence officials have stated that, pursuant to the same FISA authorities, NSA does not currently collect in bulk the metadata of these types of communications. …

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