Obama Administration Illegally Spied on Americans for Years

Even after Edward Snowden revealed improper surveillance by the NSA, the practice continued and even increased.

By Rachel Alexander Published on June 2, 2017

Once top-secret documents reveal that the Obama administration routinely violated Americans’ privacy while conducting “overseas” surveillance over the past five years. John Solomon and Sara Carter at Circa obtained a ruling issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 26 denouncing the practice. The FISA court is the secret judicial body that oversees surveillance.

The court learned that the NSA was conducting large numbers of prohibited searches of databases. The administration did not disclose the surveillance until then. It had to do that to meet a court deadline for renewing surveillance authority. The requirement is part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

More than 5 percent of the upstream searches violated data privacy safeguards.

The Circa exposé found that more than 5 percent of the upstream searches violated data privacy safeguards. The Obama administration had said it would follow those safeguards in 2011. Instead, surveillance increased by 300 percent.

Defying a Court Ruling

This increase defied a 2011 FISA court ruling. The court said the NSA had to find ways to limit what it collects and how long the data is kept. The FISA court realized at the time the collection was a problem. Searches were being done for the names of U.S. citizens in the databases.

The FISA court also revised the rules that year to prohibit these types of searches without a warrant. No longer could intelligence agencies search on an American’s email address or phone number. But the practice continued to occur after 2011. Not just a few times, but routinely and extensively. Some of those searches took place from the White House. Two years later, Edward Snowden disclosed what was going on.

The FISA court accused the NSA of “an institutional lack of candor.” The ruling called the searches a “very serious Fourth Amendment issue.” The monitoring required no warrant, reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Without those checks, the agency pursued a practice of unconstitutional search and seizure. Part of the opinion, which would have revealed the full extent of the surveillance, was blacked out.

In a responsive notice filed January 3, 2017, the NSA claimed the thousands of improper searches were due to “human error” and “system design issues.”

In April, the director of National Intelligence issued a report on the intelligence community’s use of data gathering techniques and its compliance with the FISA process. In 2016, there were 5,288 occasions where the NSA searched for an American in its database. This was a slight increase over the number of those searches in 2015.

Upstream and Downstream Data Collection

However, searches for the metadata of known Americans more than tripled between 2013 and 2016. Searches increased from 9,500 in 2013 to 30,355 in 2016. That was the year the Obama administration may have spied on the Trump campaign,

Section 702 of FISA authorizes both “upstream” and “downstream” collection of data. Upstream refers to data moving through massive data highways within the U.S. Downstream  collection snags data as it’s leaving the country. About 9 percent of the data NSA collects comes from upstream searches. In the process, the NSA sweeps up large numbers of emails. They are then stored in vast databases.

The surveillance is for monitoring foreign agents outside of the U.S. (The FBI is responsible for monitoring foreign agents within the U.S.) The FISA court requires “minimization” procedures. This means “masking” the identity of any American incidentally monitored.

The masked version is what is shared with other intelligence agencies. Intelligence officials may unmask the name if they thinks they need to do so to understand the data better.

Unmasking increased at the end of the Obama administration. Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice was caught lying about her involvement in unmasking Trump campaign officials. She refuses to testify to Congress about it.

In 2016, the NSA collected 151 million phone records.

Congress passed The USA Freedom Act in 2016 to curtail bulk surveillance. But in 2016, the NSA collected 151 million phone records.

The FISA court also had harsh words for the FBI. This is due to the agency disclosing raw surveillance data to sectors of its bureaucracy “largely staffed by private contractors.” It went “went well beyond what was necessary to respond to the FBI’s requests.” The bureau discontinued the practice on April 18, 2016.

Where to Go From Here

The NSA decided on March 20 that it will no longer monitor communications of people who merely mention a foreign intelligence target. Instead, the agency will limit collection to communications between someone and a target. The agency asserts it will delete “the vast majority” of the information it collected through the previous method. The change was announced publicly on April 28, two days after the FISA court’s ruling.

Civil liberties hawk Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said if this information is accurate, this story “will dwarf all other stories.” It constitutes “an enormous abuse of power.”

The watch dog organization Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the DOJ and the NSA requesting records relating to the unmasking of Trump campaign officials, including former National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s involvement.

 

Follow Rachel on Twitter at Rach_IC

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