NSA 'not interested in' Americans, privacy officer claims

The National Security Agency’s internal civil liberties watchdog insisted on Thursday that the agency has no interest in spying on Americans under its controversial spying tools. 

“Our employees are trained to not look for U.S. persons,” NSA privacy and civil liberties officer Rebecca Richards said on Thursday.

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“We’re not interested in those U.S. persons. We’re trying to look away from those,” she added. “Instead, we’re looking for where are our targets?”

Richards’s comments came up during a Capitol Hill panel discussion about a new report on U.S. spying from the Brennan Center for Justice.

The analysis looks at aspects of a presidential order that dates back to Ronald Reagan and was updated by then-President George W. Bush, called Executive Order 12333.

Programs under the order, which is meant to guide foreign surveillance, “have implications for Americans’ privacy that could well be greater than those of their domestic counterparts,” the organization wrote in its analysis. “The vast majority of Americans — whether wittingly or not — engage in communication that is transmitted or stored overseas.”

“This reality of the digital age renders Americans’ communications and data highly vulnerable to NSA surveillance abroad.”

NSA surveillance under Executive Order 12333 is separate from the agency’s higher profile bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, which ended last year. It also occurs under separate legal powers than a controversial provision of the 2008 update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which comes up for renewal at the end of 2017.

The executive order targets foreigners, but can “incidentally” pick up data about Americans if their activity on the Internet crosses international borders, Richards acknowledged.

“Our procedures are designed to say: There are occasions when you are going to get U.S. persons,” she said, “and when you get those U.S. persons, here’s the rules.”

Neema Singh Guliani, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that Congress ought to weigh in on the agency’s activity, and ensure firm protections for Americans.

“This is an area where the legislative could put in place an infrastructure that governs how the surveillance should happen,” Guliani said.

Richards is the agency’s first ever civil liberties officer. She was hired in early 2014, on the heels of fallout from Edward Snowden’s leaks about the spy agency.