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Report: Obama NSA Conducted Illegal Searches on Americans for Years

Cars parked in front of NSA headquarters.

A new report by Circa News details how the National Security Agency under former President Barack Obama routinely spied on Americans, violating their privacy protections and the agency's own database safeguards. According to a classified internal report reviewed by Circa, more than 5 percent of searches seeking "upstream Internet data on Americans inside the NSA’s so-called Section 702 database violated the safeguards Obama and his intelligence chiefs vowed to follow in 2011."

The Obama administration self-disclosed the problems at a closed-door hearing Oct. 26 before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that set off alarm. Trump was elected less than two weeks later.

The normally supportive court censured administration officials, saying the failure to disclose the extent of the violations earlier amounted to an “institutional lack of candor” and that the improper searches constituted a “very serious Fourth Amendment issue,” according to a recently unsealed court document dated April 26, 2017.

The admitted violations undercut one of the primary defenses that the intelligence community and Obama officials have used in recent weeks to justify their snooping into incidental NSA intercepts about Americans.

Circa has reported that there was a three-fold increase in NSA data searches about Americans and a rise in the unmasking of U.S. person’s identities in intelligence reports after Obama loosened the privacy rules in 2011.

Officials like former National Security Adviser Susan Rice have argued their activities were legal under the so-called minimization rule changes Obama made, and that the intelligence agencies were strictly monitored to avoid abuses.

The intelligence court and the NSA’s own internal watchdog found that not to be true.

“Since 2011, NSA’s minimization procedures have prohibited use of U.S.-person identifiers to query the results of upstream Internet collections under Section 702,” the unsealed court ruling declared. “The Oct. 26, 2016 notice informed the court that NSA analysts had been conducting such queries inviolation of that prohibition, with much greater frequency than had been previously disclosed to the Court.”

The newly disclosed violations have caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is now questioning whether the U.S. intelligence community has the ability to police itself.

“I think what this emphasizes is the shocking lack of oversight of these programs,” said Neema Singh Guliani, the ACLU’s legislative counsel in Washington. “You have these problems going on for years that only come to the attention of the court late in the game and then it takes additional years to change its practices. I think it does call into question all those defenses that we kept hearing, that we always have a robust oversight structure and we have culture of adherence to privacy standards,” she added. “And the headline now is they actually haven’t been in compliance for years and the FISA court itself says in its opinion is that the NSA suffers from a culture of a lack of candor.”

The NSA acknowledged it self-disclosed the mass violations to the court last fall and that in April it took the extraordinary step of suspending the type of searches that were violating the rules, even deleting prior collected data on Americans to avoid any further violations.

“NSA will no longer collect certain internet communications that merely mention a foreign intelligence target,” the agency said in the statement that was dated April 28 and placed on its Web site without capturing much media or congressional attention.

"The Obama NSA was actually chastised by the [FISA] court," Circa's Sara Carter said on Fox News' Hannity Tuesday evening. "Severely chastised -- saying they were violating the 4th Amendment rights of Americans."

On Monday, Circa also reported that under Director John Brennan the CIA became the largest consumer of unmasked intelligence on Americans of all of the intelligence agencies, even though its charter prohibits it from spying on U.S. citizens.

"I think these are two very serious issues," Carter said.

Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) asked Brennan as he testified in front of the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday whether he had unmasked the identities of Americans while CIA director.

Brennan confirmed that he had -- and in answer to Gowdy's specific question said that he did not unmask anyone on his last day at work, January 20.

When asked if any "ambassadors" (i.e. Susan Rice) had requested any names to be unmasked, Brennan said that it may have "rang a vague bell," but that he "could not answer with any confidence."