Fear of another Al-Qaeda attack kept the intelligence agencies collecting ever increasing amounts of data
George W. Bush first authorised the US National Security Agency (NSA) to collect “the contents of certain international communications” in October 2001 as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP), reveal declassified documents published by the office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Later, NSA’s data collection programmes were extended, after obtaining permission from the secret courts under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
New information about mass surveillance by the US agencies was disclosed through the official channels on Saturday in response to a federal court order.
President Barack Obama is expected to announce changes to intelligence collection rules in January, after the NSA’s conduct was criticised by domestic and foreign citizens, technology businesses and fellow politicians.
Last week, a US judge ruled that such mass surveillance programmes were “unconstitutional” and questioned whether they were delivering any benefits. Meanwhile the president’s own Task Force has developed 46 recommendations to improve the work of NSA.
According to the Director for National Intelligence James Clapper, the surveillance machine revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden was originally designed to hunt Al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11, and consisted of two parts. The first – TSP – collected content of certain communications, while the second was capturing electronic communication ‘metadata’ in bulk, including that of the US citizens.
Both programmes had to be authorised by the president every 30-60 days. “Although the precise terms changed over time, each presidential authorization required the minimization of information collected concerning American citizens to the extent consistent with the effective accomplishment of the mission of detection and prevention of acts of terrorism within the United States,” wrote Clapper.
The existence of the TSP first came to light in 2005. It was transferred to the authority of FISA and its secret courts in 2007, along with metadata collection programmes.
Later that year, the US Congress enacted the Protect America Act, which was replaced by the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 and allowed the NSA to continue expanding its mass surveillance programmes with the blessing of the FISA courts. And in December 2011, the US government finally decided it didn’t need re-authorization for the bulk collection of Internet metadata.
According to the declassified documents, the government authorised an ever increasing number of surveillance programmes because it was convinced Al-Qaeda would carry out another attack against the US.
A report by the Presidential Task Force published last week had stressed that data-collection efforts should continue, but with some new guidelines. “Excessive surveillance and unjustified secrecy can threaten civil liberties, public trust, and the core processes of democratic self-government,” it said. “All parts of the government, including those that protect our national security, must be subject to the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, US cryptography specialist RSA has categorically denied accusations that it took a $10 million payment in return for building in backdoors into two of its products.
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Originally published on eWeek.