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N.S.A. Warrantless Surveillance Aided Turks After Attack, Officials Say

The National Security Agency used its warrantless surveillance program to help Turkey find the suspect in a terrorist attack at an Istanbul nightclub on Dec. 31 that killed 39 people and wounded dozens more, including an American who was shot, a senior F.B.I. official said Tuesday.

The surveillance program's role in hunting down the suspect was one of several newly declassified examples that national security officials, including Carl Ghattas, the head of the F.B.I.'s national security branch, divulged at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the FISA Amendments Act, the legal basis for the program. The law will expire at the end of 2017 if Congress does not extend it.

But the pitch by the security officials to persuade lawmakers to extend the law or make it permanent ran into political turbulence, including continuing anger by Republicans over the leaking of the contents of calls in December between Michael T. Flynn, President Trump's former national security adviser, and the Russian ambassador. Those disclosures helped lead to Mr. Flynn's ouster from the administration.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said he had asked months ago whether the government had ever intercepted his conversations with foreign leaders and, if so, whether any executive branch officials had requested that his identity be revealed in intelligence reports based on those calls.

The Trump administration has not answered that question, he said, and he wanted to know whether he had "a legal right, as a United States senator," to know that information, lest members of either party in the executive branch who have access to the material and "don't like me" use such intercepts against him.

But the witnesses sidestepped Mr. Graham's question, saying only that they were working on his request. That provoked an angry intervention from the committee chairman, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who banged his gavel and told Mr. Graham, his voice rising, "I want you to proceed until you get an answer."

Mr. Graham eventually ended his questioning without getting one. But later in the hearing, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, suggested that the senators' emotion at the thought that their government could invade their privacy and use the information against them was just part of the bigger picture.

"What about the privacy of the Americans who are not in this room?" he asked.

The warrantless surveillance program traces back to President George W. Bush's Stellarwind program, introduced after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Stellarwind permitted the National Security Agency to wiretap Americans' international phone calls without the court orders required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, of 1978.

After it came to light, Congress legalized a form of the program in 2008 with the FISA Amendments Act. It permits the government to collect, from American internet or phone providers and without warrants, the communications of foreigners abroad who have been targeted for any foreign intelligence purpose – even when they are talking to Americans.

Privacy advocates want Congress, as part of any bill extending the law, to require warrants before officials may use Americans' identifiers, like their email addresses, to search the repository of messages previously collected by the program. But Stuart J. Evans, a top intelligence official at the Justice Department, testified on Tuesday that imposing such a limit would "grind the entire FISA process to a halt" because investigators need to quickly search a large volume of such queries to process leads, and because such queries are typically undertaken at an early stage, when investigators have not yet found evidence to establish probable cause of wrongdoing.

Several lawmakers also pressed the officials about a decision by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, to shelve an N.S.A. effort to estimate how much incidental collection of Americans' information the program sweeps up. Bradley Brooker, the acting general counsel to Mr. Coats, said that systematically determining who is using email accounts that are not of foreign intelligence interest would invade people's privacy and divert resources.

To underscore their message that the program is too valuable to curtail, Mr. Brooker and other officials disclosed several additional examples where the program had been useful. They included detecting an unidentified country that was smuggling goods in violation of sanctions, and finding someone in Western Europe who was talking to a member of the Islamic State about purchasing "material to build a suicide belt."

Mr. Ghattas said the government had used the program to investigate Shawn Parson, a Trinidadian social media propagandist for the Islamic State whose network "distributed prolific amounts" of English-language recruiting pitches and calls for attacks before he was killed in Syria in August 2015.

The F.B.I. had been investigating Mr. Parson since October 2013 based on his online postings, Mr. Ghattas said, and information it shared from that collection with unspecified allies had helped them identify other Islamic State supporters and had "potentially prevented attacks in those countries."

[Source: By Charlie Savage, The New York Times, Washington, 27Jun17]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
small logoThis document has been published on 29Jun17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.