US intelligence chiefs have confirmed that the National Security Agency has used a “back door” in surveillance law to perform warrantless searches on Americans’ communications.
The NSA’s collection programs are ostensibly targeted at foreigners, but in August the Guardian revealed a secret rule change allowing NSA analysts to search for Americans’ details within the databases.
Now, in a letter to Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the intelligence committee, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has confirmed the use of this legal authority to search for data related to “US persons”.
“There have been queries, using US person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence targeting non-US persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States,” Clapper wrote in the letter, which has been obtained by the Guardian.
“These queries were performed pursuant to minimization procedures approved by the Fisa court and consistent with the statute and the fourth amendment.”
The legal authority to perform the searches, revealed in top-secret NSA documents provided to the Guardian by Edward Snowden, was denounced by Wyden as a “backdoor search loophole.”
Many of the NSA’s most controversial programs collect information under the law affected by the so-called loophole. These include Prism, which allows the agency to collect data from Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo and other tech companies, and the agency’s Upstream program – a huge network of internet cable taps.
Clapper did not say how many warrantless searches had been performed by the NSA. It was not the first time the searches had been confirmed: after the Snowden leaks, the office of the director of national intelligence declassified documents that discussed the rule change. But Clapper’s letter drew greater attention to the issue.