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Surprise: At the End, Obama Administration Gave NSA Broad New Powers

This story, from the Jan. 12, 2017, edition of the New York Times, was little-remarked upon at the time, but suddenly has taken on far greater significance in light of current events:

In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections.

The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches.

The change means that far more officials will be searching through raw data. Essentially, the government is reducing the risk that the N.S.A. will fail to recognize that a piece of information would be valuable to another agency, but increasing the risk that officials will see private information about innocent people.

One of the central questions behind the Mike Flynn flap that should have been asked but largely wasn't is: who was wiretapping the general? The answer, we know now, was the National Security Agency, formerly known as No Such Agency, the nation's foremost signals-intelligence (SIGINT) collection department.

Once compartmentalized to avoid injuring private citizens caught up in the net of the Black Widow (as we all are already) and her technological successors, the NSA was suddenly handed greater latitude in what it could share with other, perhaps more politicized bodies of the intelligence community. Why?

Let's call the roster of the bad guys:

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch signed the new rules, permitting the N.S.A. to disseminate “raw signals intelligence information,” on Jan. 3, after the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., signed them on Dec. 15, according to a 23-page, largely declassified copy of the procedures.

Previously, the N.S.A. filtered information before sharing intercepted communications with another agency, like the C.I.A. or the intelligence branches of the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The N.S.A.’s analysts passed on only information they deemed pertinent, screening out the identities of innocent people and irrelevant personal information.

Now, other intelligence agencies will be able to search directly through raw repositories of communications intercepted by the N.S.A. and then apply such rules for “minimizing” privacy intrusions.

“This is not expanding the substantive ability of law enforcement to get access to signals intelligence,” said Robert S. Litt, the general counsel to Mr. Clapper. “It is simply widening the aperture for a larger number of analysts, who will be bound by the existing rules.”