The National Security Agency searches through Americans' e-mails and texts for contacts or information about foreigners who are being monitored for illegal activities, according to intelligence officials who spoke with The New York Times.
According to the Times, the searches take place without warrants and are part of the casting of a "wider net" to target suspected terrorists that also includes the gathering of extensive computer data from overseas.
The surveillance is allowed under the FISA Amendments Act passed in 2003, which cleared the way for eavesdropping without a warrant so long as it targets a non-American traveling or living outside the United States.
Judith A. Emmel, a spokeswoman for the NSA, told The Times that the agency's activities are not meant to gather information on Americans, but to target foreign powers, organizations, or terrorists.
According to the Times, hints of the targeting program were contained in secret information leaked recently by Edward Snowden referring to "a set of rules" about how the NSA is legally allowed to carry out its surveillance efforts under the FISA law.
A senior intelligence official, speaking anonymously to the Times, said the NSA copies and then sifts through contents of text-based messages coming into and leaving the U.S. searching for identifying keywords. The keyword hits are then sorted and stored for analysis. All other information related to the texts are deleted.
Former intelligence official Timothy Edgar, who worked in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, said the data-gathering rule was implemented after a great deal of discussion about how it should be applied.
"There is an ambiguity in the [FISA} law about what it means to 'target' someone," Edgar, who is now a visiting professor at Brown, told the Times.
"You can never intentionally target someone inside the United States. Those are the words we were looking at. We were most concerned about making sure the procedures only target communications that have one party outside the United States."
But Jameel Jaffer, a senior lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the keyword targeting program still amounts to "dragnet surveillance" that will hinder the "freedoms of inquiry and association." He said just knowing that their e-mails and other electronic communications activities will be searched will change the way people behave when looking for or exchanging information.
"They’ll hesitate before visiting controversial Web sites, discussing controversial topics or investigating politically sensitive questions," he told the Times.
"Individually, these hesitations might appear to be inconsequential, but the accumulation of them over time will change citizens’ relationship to one another and to the government."
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