NSA May Have Been Collecting Email Data Since Sept. 11

The Guardian newspaper has released a new leaked document that details how the National Security Agency, after Sept. 11, collected email records. The program targeted foreigners but included Americans. It ended in 2011.

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Today, more revelations about U.S. government surveillance. The Guardian newspaper has published documents that showed the government collected data on email traffic for 10 years, beginning just after 9/11. And that included messages to and from Americans.

The documents explain how the government justified that domestic surveillance, which was the forerunner for the programs that have been in the news in the last few weeks. Well, joining us to explain it is NPR's Larry Abramson. And, Larry, how and when exactly did this particular surveillance program begin?

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Well, Robert, right after 9/11 there was a huge concern about additional terrorist attacks. The administration says, well, the FBI is looking at internal threats, the National Security Agency is monitoring foreigners, but nobody is watching threats coming into the United States from overseas.

The head of the NSA had already sought permission to gather international communications data before 9/11. And the Department of Justice said, no, it's not legal. But after 9/11, everything changed. President Bush authorized this email surveillance program under his executive power, and it was set into motion.

SIEGEL: And what was the NSA actually looking for as they combed through this data?

ABRAMSON: Well, we've heard some of this information about this program before. But what they were looking for is not the content of emails but the to and from information. And then they fed that data into a computer tool called Stellar Wind. Stellar Wind track not just whether person A was contacting person B, but it would also say, well, maybe person B has been in contact with person C and D and E. And it would set up this chain, this communications chain that could be very useful, and let them build communities of people who have important connections.

They established a metadata analysis center that was manned 24/7 by people who used to be analyzing Russian communications traffic during the Cold War, and they got to work.

SIEGEL: Larry, how many people knew about this email monitoring program?

ABRAMSON: Well, Congress was told within days. But the Bush administration controlled the actual documents that gave the legal justification for this program incredibly tightly. There's a draft report by the inspector general of the National Security Agency, and it was published by the Guardian. And this documents says that the NSA had to physically pick up these orders at the White House, show it to the people who needed to know before they could go on with this work. Eventually, 3,000 people found out about this program that it existed, and that included many members of Congress.

SIEGEL: Was the FISA court involved in this as it was in the other programs that we learned of?

ABRAMSON: Well, the top judge in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was informed. But there were no court orders for this activity for the first two and a half years. And then in 2004, the Justice Department started to raise concerns about continuing this warrantless surveillance. After that, the surveillance court started to sign orders for this bulk collection. But the full court, all of the members of the FISA court weren't briefed until 2006 after media reports and The New York Times told us about warrantless wiretapping.

SIEGEL: Larry, explain the connection between this program and the other surveillance we've been hearing about recent, the PRISM program and also the banking of all the metadata phone communications.

ABRAMSON: Well, these documents show that this is how the government's surveillance programs evolved after 9/11 and became PRISM and the Verizon program that we've been hearing about. Now, the White House says this program that we're talking about, the email surveillance, has stopped as of 2011, which means it went into the Obama administration. But the Guardian says there's evidence that some of this email collection is still going on.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Larry.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Larry Abramson.

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