A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The NSA boasts in training materials that the program, called XKeyscore, is its "widest-reaching" system for developing intelligence from the internet.
The latest revelations will add to the intense public and congressional debate around the extent of NSA surveillance programs. They come as senior intelligence officials testify to the Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday, releasing classified documents in response to the Guardian's earlier stories on bulk collection of phone records and Fisa surveillance court oversight.
The files shed light on one of Snowden's most controversial statements, made in his first video interview published by the Guardian on June 10.
"I, sitting at my desk," said Snowden, could "wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email".
US officials vehemently denied this specific claim. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said of Snowden's assertion: "He's lying. It's impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do."
But training materials for XKeyscore detail how analysts can use it and other systems to mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed...
One of the assurances I keep hearing about the U.S. government's spying on American citizens is that it's only used in cases of terrorism. Terrorism is, of course, an extraordinary crime, and its horrific nature is supposed to justify permitting all sorts of excesses to prevent it. But there's a problem with this line of reasoning: mission creep. The definitions of "terrorism" and "weapon of mass destruction" are broadening, and these extraordinary powers are being used, and will continue to be used, for crimes other than terrorism.
Back in 2002, the Patriot Act greatly broadened the definition of terrorism to include all sorts of "normal" violent acts as well as non-violent protests. The term "terrorist" is surprisingly broad; since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it has been applied to people you wouldn't normally consider terrorists.
The most egregious example of this are the three anti-nuclear pacifists, including an 82-year-old nun, who cut through a chain-link fence at the Oak Ridge nuclear-weapons-production facility in 2012. While they were originally arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, the government kept increasing their charges as the facility's security lapses became more embarrassing. Now the protestors have been convicted of violent crimes of terrorism -- and remain in jail.
Meanwhile, a Tennessee government official claimed that complaining about water quality could be considered an act of terrorism. To the government's credit, he was subsequently demoted for those remarks...