WASHINGTON — Since the disclosure of National Security Agency surveillance documents by the British newspaper The Guardian began this month, President Barack Obama, top intelligence officials and members of Congress have repeatedly assured Americans that they are not the target of the NSA’s sweeping electronic collection system.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said when the story broke.
But as experts on American intelligence knew, that was not the whole story. It left out what NSA officials have long called “incidental” collection of Americans’ calls and emails — the routine capture of Americans’ communications in the process of targeting foreign communications.
On Thursday, in the latest release of documents supplied by Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA contractor now believed to be hiding in Hong Kong, The Guardian published two documents setting out the detailed rules governing the NSA’s intercepts. Dated 2009 and signed by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., they advise NSA eavesdroppers on how to judge whether a target is a foreigner overseas, and therefore fair game, and what to do when they pick up Americans at home or abroad.
They show, for example, that NSA officers who intercept an American online or on the phone — say, while monitoring the phone or email of a foreign diplomat or a suspected terrorist — can preserve the recording or transcript if they believe the contents include “foreign intelligence information” or evidence of a possible crime. They can likewise preserve the intercept if it contains information on a “threat of serious harm to life or property” or sheds light on technical issues like encryption or vulnerability to cyberattacks.
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