NSA is not ‘intentionally looking’ for Americans, says agency’s privacy officer

The National Security Agency's privacy and civil liberties director Rebecca Richards said the agency is not “intentionally looking for U.S. persons.”

“Instead we're supporting combatant command,” she said, speaking at a briefing hosted by the Brennan Center for Justice. “Our employees are trained not to look for U.S. persons.” The comments came in response to a report published last week by the Brennan Center, in which a presidential order that addresses surveillance policies received a critical eye. Executive Order 12333 governs the interception of phone, e-mail, and other communications by intelligence agencies.

Amos Toh, a legal fellow at the Brennan Center, one of the authors of the “Overseas Surveillance in an Interconnected World” report, also participated in the briefing. During the panel discussion, Toh said he was under several misconceptions about the scope and reach of overseas surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies. “I suspect some of these misconceptions are quite common,” he said. “Overseas surveillance affects Americans in very significant ways, in more significant ways than you may think. It can happen if Americans are communicating with Americans in the United States.”

Executive Order 12333 was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and modified by President George W. Bush in 2008 and President Obama in 2014.

“So long as they are operating outside the U.S., intelligence agencies are authorized to collect information about any foreign person — including that person's communications with American friends, relatives, customers, or business associates,” the report stated.

Richards confirmed this, stating that while the presidential order targets foreigners, the NSA can “incidentally” collect Americans' data if their Internet activities extend into international borders.

Panelist Neema Singh Guliani, American Civil Liberties Union's legislative counsel, said during the discussion that the NSA can search through encrypted data, and scan the content of encrypted data. Executive Order 12333 “appears to be more permissive” of intelligence agencies' use of personal data, she said. “It's not clear that criminal defendants get notice, or even that there are any procedures to ensure that sufficient notice is provided.”

Recently declassified documents have revealed that the NSA continues to surveil political targets, including leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, U.S. senators who communicated with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Muslim American leader Faisal Gill – a one-time Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates who held a top-secret security clearance and served in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

In New York earlier this month, 'Dark Territory' author Fred Kaplan said the NSA has become a highly disciplined intelligence agency, but he warned “because the internal checks and structures are set up internally, they can – under a different administration – be dismantled just as easily.”

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