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NEWS & FEATURES

FAQ about the NSA's surveillance programs

Wondering what, exactly, the NSA is collecting and why people are so concerned about it? Here are some straightforward answers to frequently asked questions

Photo: via Electronic Frontier Foundation, EFF.org, License: N/A

via Electronic Frontier Foundation, EFF.org


Also, the NSA is allowed to provide any of its recorded information to the FBI, if the FBI specifically asks for it.

Is all of this legal?

Yes, assuming the NSA adheres to the restrictions set out in recently leaked court orders. By definition, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decides what it is legal for the NSA to do.

But this level of domestic surveillance wasn't always legal, and the NSA has been found to violate legal standards on more than one occasion. Although the NSA's broad data collection programs appear to have started shortly after September 11, 2001, the NSA was gradually granted authority to collect domestic information on this scale through a series of legislative changes and court decisions over the next decade. See this timeline of loosening laws. The Director of National Intelligence says that authority for PRISM programs comes from section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Verizon metadata collection order cites section 215 of the Patriot Act. The author of the Patriot Act disagrees that the act justifies the Verizon metadata collection program.

In March 2004, acting Attorney General James Comey ordered a stop to some parts of the secret domestic surveillance programs, but President Bush signed an order re-authorizing it anyway. In response, several top Justice Department officials threatened to resign, including Comey and FBI director Robert Mueller. Bush backed down, and the programs were at least partially suspended for several months.

In 2009, the Justice Department acknowledged that the NSA had collected emails and phone calls of Americans in a way that exceeded legal limitations.

In October 2011, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled that the NSA violated the Fourth Amendment at least once. The Justice Department has said that this ruling must remain secret, but we know it concerned some aspect of the "minimization" rules the govern what the NSA can do with domestic communications. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court recently decided that this ruling can be released, but Justice Department has not yet done so.

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