UPDATED: NSA admits it listens in on US phone calls and reads US emails without a warrant

It's a pity that so many senators skipped the NSA's classified briefing on its secret spying program, because if they'd attended, they'd have heard something shocking: the NSA can and does access the content of emails and phone calls of Americans on US soil without a warrant. It's an important insight into the President's secret interpretation of FISA, one of America's most notorious spying laws.

Update: Rep. Nadler has denied that this is what he meant: “I am pleased that the administration has reiterated that, as I have always believed, the NSA cannot listen to the content of Americans’ phone calls without a specific warrant.”

However, he does not deny that the NSA can access the contents of the call, not ruling out the possibility of the NSA using contractors, or speech-to-text, or some other indirect method, to accomplish "listening in" by other means.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed this week that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed "simply based on an analyst deciding that."

If the NSA wants "to listen to the phone," an analyst's decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. "I was rather startled," said Nadler, an attorney and congressman who serves on the House Judiciary committee.

Not only does this disclosure shed more light on how the NSA's formidable eavesdropping apparatus works domestically, it also suggests the Justice Department has secretly interpreted federal surveillance law to permit thousands of low-ranking analysts to eavesdrop on phone calls.

Because the same legal standards that apply to phone calls also apply to e-mail messages, text messages, and instant messages, Nadler's disclosure indicates the NSA analysts could also access the contents of Internet communications without going before a court and seeking approval.

The NSA is supposed to only spy on us dirty foreigners. As sketchy as it is to divide the world into the spied-upon and the un-spied-upon, it is nevertheless the law, and should be comforting to those the latter category. This revelation confirms that the Obama administration has doubled down on GW Bush's project of lawless, authoritarian surveillance, treating the Constitution and Congress's laws as mere formalities. So much for "the most transparent administration in history."

NSA admits listening to U.S. phone calls without warrants [Declan McCullagh/Cnet]


  1. Cory, no. You’re a little slow catching up today. Little Green Footballs has the video of the Mueller/Nadler exchange from C-Span and it’s pretty clear CNet got it wrong.

  2. McCullough is now rowing back from the original claim that NSA analysts can listen in on any conversation. 

    ‘James Owens, a spokesman for Nadler, provided a statement on Sunday morning, a day after this article was published, saying: “I am pleased that the administration has reiterated that, as I have always believed, the NSA cannot listen to the content of Americans’ phone calls without a specific warrant.”‘

    1. ” the NSA cannot (legally) listen to the content of Americans’ phone calls without a specific warrant.”‘  

      But I bet they can and do.

    2. Well that makes perfect sense. Against all the leaks of the past year, and the history of the Obama administration, and the history of the Bush administration, one spokesman says there is no warrantless wiretapping, ever.  Okay then. Nothing to see here.

      Isn’t it comforting to have the most transparent administration in history?

    3.  Maybe I don’t understand US law, but can’t they listen to whatever they want, but not use it in court?

      1. No.  The fourth and fifth amendments of the US constitution essentially (in theory) guarantee due process under the law, and makes illegal search and/or seizure without a warrant.  Further, it specifies that such warrants are only handed when there is a reasonable suspicion of a crime, directs that the warrant must be handed out in a way as spelled out by law, and that the warrant is limited to only things that described in the warrant.

        Basically, it says you can’t go fishing, regardless of what you do with that information.  So, it is utterly illegal for the state to, without warrant, spy on you.  You can sue the state if they do for violating your constitutional rights, and the ACLU and the EFF are doing that as we speak.

        On top of all of that, the state can’t (in theory) use that information against you in court, and information that is gained using that illegal information also can’t be used.  So, if they illegally get the location of the bodies, they can’t go dig up the bodies and use the bodies as proof.

        Again, this is all in theory.  Apparently the NSA, a military spy agency, is exempt from the constitution. Terrorist area really scary. Almost as many Americans die each year to terrorist as they do to bathtubs. Terrorist are really, really scary… if you are a fucking coward.

  3. Haha, they are vacuuming, but trying to smokescreen it with flip-flopping and lies.  Jerks!

  4. Did the Bish admin admit it?
    Did the Obama admin admit it?

    So, which is more transparent? Yeah.

    1.  Obama ‘admitted’ it as a form of damage control after it had already been revealed, while continuing to lie about the extent and methods.

      That’s not transparency.

      1. Same basic news broke under Bush. They did damage control.

        Admission isn’t damage control. That said, neither bush nor Obama did this.

  5. The really scary part is not just that they can collect this information,but they can hold onto it forever until they can find a use for it.The ability to take entirely circumstantial evidence and turn it into something sinister in perpetuity.See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/15/opinion/collins-the-other-side-of-the-story.html?smid=tw-nytopinion&seid=auto

  6. Nadler’s statement was not that hard for a rational person to interpret. This was a total hatchet job by CNET,, with BB following along without any critical thought.
    Bad show all around, especially since legions of knuckledraggers will go on believing this story true and repeating it.

  7. The difference between “Listening to phone calls”  and “accessing the content of phone calls” is significant here, in the day of decent speech-recognition and transcription software.  An analyst might very well be able to search/read/etc. the automated transcript of a call without “listening” to it — which would make BOTH statements true.

    Every comment from NSA, from the White House, and from all the companies involved is written VERY carefully, and should be read equally carefully.

    1. Precisely.  They don’t listen because they don’t have time to listen.  But are they able to wiretap instantaneously?  or are they able to access content and past content instantly through computer transcription? are they able to cross-reference content and metadata instantly?  If a battery of speech recognition and synthesis “listeners” could be analyzing every call, waiting for key content, don’t you think they’d be doing it?  Dude, the ARE doing it, and what they are feeding us is parsed bullshit.  Don’t listen to them.  They are lying.

      1. Absolutely right – they can trivially lie by admission. Plus, of course they have machines do most of the work – there’s billions of words & phrases in hundreds of languages, so voice-to-text and translate, then add into the haystack, so you can create any needle you want, then justify it from that haystack. Because once your haystack is big enough, you can needle anyone.

          1. Not my haystack, but yes, if you track everyone everywhere… Affairs, sources, pregnancies, job headhunters, cash working, porn, drinking, family issues… So judges, spies, politicians, lawyers, civil servants, journalists, and everyone else can be compromised, even if just by 6 degrees of seperation.

  8. Latest report they issued was they stopped 300 incidents.
    This was after collecting the call data for “10’s of millions” of people.
    So the return rate of this program is 0.003% if you reduce the number down to 10 million.

    So I guess the next best question for those phone polls they love to run with questions that skew the answers is…
    To be 0.003% “safer” is it worth millions/billions and violations of the rights you think you have (because you don’t get to know the secret interpretations of the law that make it “legal”)?

    1. Let me fix that for you
      Latest ‘press release’ they issued was (that) they stopped 300 incidents.I don’t believe that 300 number for a minute. Are there secret trails taking place in secret courts with prisoners being sent to secret prisons? If not, where are these 300 terrorists arrested for criminal activity?

      1. Oh I’m pretty sure the number is BS, but wanted to point out that even if it was true… it is 0.003% or less effective using those numbers.

Comments are closed.