How NSA continued to spy on American citizens' email traffic – from overseas

Files show agency just moved surveillance offshore


Newly revealed documents (not from Snowden this time) show that the NSA has continued to collect Americans' email traffic en masse using overseas offices to get around curbs introduced domestically.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, President Bush authorized the NSA to collect bulk metadata on emails sent by Americans (although not the content) to help The War Against Terror (TWAT). The surveillance was authorized by the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which mostly rubberstamped such requests.

But the collection was stopped in 2011, the NSA said, although it still monitored emails from Americans to people outside the nation's borders. However, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit started by The New York Times against the NSA's Inspector General has uncovered documents showing that the NSA carried on collecting domestic data.

To get around the restrictions on operating in the USA, the NSA simply started using its overseas offices to do the collection. Stations like RAF Menwith Hill in Yorkshire were tasked with collecting the metadata and feeding it back to the NSA headquarters in Maryland.

There's no evidence that the content of emails was being examined by NSA analysts. Instead the metadata was used to try and divine linkages between individuals the agency was looking to monitor. But that metadata is very useful.

"We have known for some time that traffic analysis is more powerful than content analysis," said Dan Geer, chief information security officer of the CIA's venture capital firm In-Q-Tel.

"If I know everything about you, about who you communicate with, when, where, with what frequency, what length, and at what location, I know you. The soothing mendacity of proxies from the president that claim that it is only metadata, is to rely on the profound ignorance of the listener."

The NSA has declined to comment on the documents. ®

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