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NSA surveillance: What’s changing, what isn’t

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has proposed changes in how the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence bodies conduct surveillance and collect data. Here’s a summary of what he’s proposing to change and what’s staying the same:

TELEPHONE DATA

  • What’s staying the same:

The NSA will still have access to a vast database of information about virtually all telephone calls made to or from the United States. Civil liberties advocates have wanted to limit any data collection to specific numbers suspected of being involved in terrorist activities, but intelligence officials have argued they need access to the “entire haystack” to trace possible terrorist plots.

That database does not include the content of phone calls. It compiles numbers that are called and the times and duration of calls. Despite an apparently widespread belief, the NSA and other intelligence agencies do not eavesdrop on U.S. phone calls. The FBI can tap phone lines, but needs a warrant to do so.

The NSA will continue to have power to eavesdrop on telephone calls overseas.

  • What’s changing:

Instead of having the government hold the database of phone call “metadata,” Obama is proposing to shift control to a private entity. The details of how — or if — that will be done will have to be worked out with Congress.

NSA analysts will have to get court approval to obtain information from the database, at least in most cases. NSA officials can authorize searches on their own so long as they have a “reasonably articulated suspicion” that a particular number is involved in terrorist activities.

Intelligence agencies will face some new restrictions on eavesdropping on the phones of leaders of friendly countries.

SECRET INTELLIGENCE COURT

  • What’s staying the same:

A panel of federal judges, meeting in secret, will continue to be the main judicial body that reviews requests for foreign intelligence surveillance.

In most cases, only government lawyers will appear before the judges.

  • What’s changing:

A public advocate will be appointed who can counter the arguments of government lawyers before the judges, but only in cases involving broad policy issues.

INTERNET AND EMAIL

  • What’s staying the same:

The NSA will still have broad authority to intercept email and other Internet communications overseas. Intelligence officials say this power, much more than the telephone database, has been key to counterterrorism investigations.

Intercepts have to be targeted at foreign persons, but they often involve Americans who communicate with foreigners or are traveling overseas. When Americans’ communications are intercepted, the NSA is allowed to keep that information if it is relevant to a terrorism investigation or other foreign intelligence purpose, but is required to “minimize” how that information gets shared with other government agencies. None of that changes.

  • What’s changing:

A new policy directive orders intelligence agencies to protect the privacy rights of foreign persons but does not restrict the government’s ability to use information obtained overseas in its investigations.
 

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