An executive order signed in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan is the “primary source” of authority for the National Security Agency’s foreign spying, according to newly released internal documents.
Papers obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit detail the central role that the order plays in authorizing the NSA’s current operations.
The order, known as Executive Order 12333, allows the NSA to collect Internet communications about foreigners, including their email messages and online chats. The agency is not allowed to target people in the U.S., though Americans’ communications can be “incidentally” picked up in the course of a foreign investigation, which critics have said poses grave risks to privacy.
In a blog post, ACLU staff attorney Alex Abdo wrote that the legal order is “the main game in town for NSA surveillance.”
Congress has attempted to rein in other areas of the NSA’s activities, but has largely avoided work to reform the executive order.
Instead, a bill currently working its way through the Senate would end the spy agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, the program that has inspired the largest amount of criticism from the public.
While those powers are “dramatically overbroad,” they “pale in comparison to the executive order,” Abdo wrote.
Earlier this month, four House Democrats feared that classified legal interpretations of the executive order amount to “secret law.”
The ACLU’s FOIA lawsuit was filed just before Edward Snowden revealed his documents about the NSA last year.
Intelligence officials have defended the NSA’s programs, which they claim include a number of protections to protect people’s privacy, including “minimization procedures” to mask individual’s identities.