Even though it has only limited legal authority to spy on U.S. citizens, the National Security Agency has built a surveillance network that covers more Americans' Internet communications than officials have disclosed publicly, current and former officials say.
The system can reach as much as 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence, The Wall Street Journal reports.
This intelligence includes a broad array of communications by foreigners and Americans.
In some cases, the agency retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic telephone calls made with Internet technology, the officials told the Journal.
"Technology is moving us swiftly into a world where the only barriers to this kind of dragnet surveillance are the protections enshrined into law," Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon told the Journal.
In 2012, Wyden sought but failed to prohibit the NSA from searching its databases for information on Americans without a warrant.
He has also pushed intelligence agencies to detail how many Americans' communications have been collected and to explain whether purely domestic communications are retained in NSA's databanks. They have declined.
According to the Journal, the NSA's filtering is conducted with telecom companies. It is designed to look for communications that either originate or end abroad, or are entirely foreign but happen to be passing through the U.S.
But the officials say the system's broad reach makes it more likely that purely domestic communications will be incidentally intercepted and collected in the hunt for foreign ones, the Journal reports.
The programs — code-named Blarney, Fairview, Oakstar, Lithium, and Stormbrew, among others — filter and gather information at major telecommunications companies.
Blarney, for instance, was established with AT&T, the former officials say. AT&T declined to comment to the Journal.
The filtering takes place at more than a dozen locations at major Internet junctions in the U.S., officials say.
Previously, any NSA filtering of this kind was largely believed to be happening near points where undersea or other foreign cables enter the country, the Journal reports.
The Journal gathered details of these surveillance programs from interviews with current and former intelligence and government officials and people from companies that help build or operate the systems, or provide data.
Most have direct knowledge of the work, the Journal reports.
The NSA defends its practices as legal and respectful of Americans' privacy.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said that, if American communications are "incidentally collected during NSA's lawful signals intelligence activities," the agency followed "minimization procedures that are approved by the U.S. attorney general and designed to protect the privacy of United States persons."
Or, as another U.S. official put it to the Journal, the NSA is "not wallowing willy-nilly" through Americans' idle online chatter. "We want high-grade ore."
To achieve that, the programs use complex algorithms that, in effect, operate like filters placed over a stream with holes designed to let certain pieces of information flow through, the Journal reports.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, for instance, the NSA widened the holes to capture more information when the government broadened its definition of what constitutes "reasonable" collection, according to a former top intelligence official.
The NSA's U.S. programs have been described in narrower terms in the documents released in May by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
One effort, for example, acquires Americans' telephone records; another, called Prism, makes requests for stored data to Internet companies.
By contrast, these programs show that the NSA has the capability to track almost anything that happens online, so long as it is covered by a broad court order, the Journal reports.
The NSA programs are approved and overseen by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The agency is required to destroy information on Americans that doesn't fall under exceptions to the rule, including information that is relevant to foreign intelligence, encrypted, or evidence of a crime, the Journal reports.
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