Spy office defends ‘extensive and multi-layered’ oversight

The nation’s top spy office is publicly defending a controversial executive order that authorizes some types of foreign snooping.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) civil liberties protection officer, Alexander Joel, wrote an op-ed in Politico Magazine on Monday arguing that the Reagan administration order is covered by “extensive and multi-layered” oversight and includes multiple protections for Americans and foreigners alike. 

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Executive Order 12333, which was updated by former President George W. Bush in 2008, “plays an important role in America’s intelligence oversight framework,” Joel wrote, “so that, in the words of the order, agencies execute their missions ‘in a vigorous, innovative, and responsible manner that is consistent with the Constitution and applicable law and respectful of the principles upon which the United States was founded.’ ”

The op-ed comes on the heels of new focus on the order, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks about programs at the National Security Agency.

John Napier Tye, a former State Department official working on Internet freedom, wrote in The Washington Post last month that the executive order allows the NSA to warrantlessly peer deep into Americans’ emails, phone calls and Web chats, as long as they are “incidentally” collected during the course of an overseas foreign investigation. 

“The order as used today threatens our democracy,” Tye wrote. “There is no good reason that U.S. citizens should receive weaker privacy and oversight protections simply because their communications are collected outside, not inside, our borders.”

In Monday’s op-ed, the ODNI official pushed back.

The administration uses “minimization procedures” to limit the amount of information collected and stored about Americans, Joel wrote. 

For instance, the NSA cannot use an American’s name or email address to search for communications without approval from the Justice Department, and generally tries to mask their identity even if the search is warranted. 

At the NSA, an internal system “enforces key protections regardless of nationality,” he added, and officials from the Pentagon, Justice Department and Congress also provide oversight.

Current legislation in Congress to rein in some aspects of the NSA does not mention the contested executive order.

However, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a small government watchdog that declared the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records illegal, has begun to analyze the order, which could lead to further scrutiny.