Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

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Only 4 nations exempt from NSA spying

  • Article by: Ellen Nakashima and Barton Gellman
  • Washington Post
  • June 30, 2014 - 7:18 PM

– Virtually no foreign government is off-limits for the National Security Agency (NSA), which has been authorized to intercept information from individuals “concerning” all but four countries on Earth, according to top-secret documents.

The United States has long had broad no-spying arrangements with those four countries — Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But a classified 2010 legal certification and other documents indicate the NSA has been given a far more elastic authority than previously known, one that allows it to intercept through U.S. companies not just the communications of its overseas targets, but any communications about its targets as well.

The certification — approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and included among a set of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — lists 193 countries that would be of valid interest for U.S. intelligence.

The NSA is not necessarily targeting all the countries or organizations identified in the certification, affidavits and an accompanying exhibit; it has only been given authority to do so. Still, the privacy implications are far-reaching, civil liberties advocates say, because of the wide spectrum of people who might be engaged in communication about foreign governments and entities and whose communications might be of interest to the United States.

NSA officials, who declined to comment on the certification or acknowledge its authenticity, stressed the constraints placed on foreign intelligence-gathering.

The documents shed light on a little-understood process that is central to one of the NSA’s most significant surveillance programs: collection of the e-mails and phone calls of foreign targets under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act.

On Friday, the director of national intelligence released a transparency report stating that in 2013 the government had targeted nearly 90,000 foreign persons or organizations for foreign surveillance under the program.

Some lawmakers are concerned that the potential for intrusions on Americans’ privacy grows under the 2008 law because the government is intercepting not just communications of its targets, but communications about its targets as well. The expansiveness of the foreign powers certification increases that concern.

“When Congress passed Section 702 back in 2008, most members of Congress had no idea that the government was collecting Americans’ communications simply because they contained a particular individual’s contact information,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has co-sponsored legislation to narrow “about” collection authority.

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