An ACLU Freedom of Information request reveals that the NSA considers Reagan's "Executive Order 12333" (previously) its "primary source" of spying authority — and so it conducts this surveillance without reporting to Congress on it.
The wordsmithing in the DoJ's secretive interpretation of 12333 is remarkably disingenuous — so much so that the briefing documents the NSA uses for its own operatives advises them to "stop…and readjust your vocabulary," because none of the meanings that the White House and the NSA assign to key words and phrases chimes with any English-speaker's understanding of their meanings.
In other words, EO 12333 is the main game in town for NSA surveillance. Of course, the debate about reforms to Section 215 and the FISA Amendments Act is tremendously important to Americans' privacy. But those authorities, while dramatically overbroad, pale in comparison to the executive order.
The documents make it clearer than ever that the government's vast surveillance apparatus is collecting information — including from Americans — about much more than just terrorist threats. The government generally defends its sweeping surveillance authorities by pointing to the threat of terrorism. But the truth is that its surveillance powers bear little relationship to that narrow goal. They reach far more broadly, allowing the government to monitor any international communication that contains "foreign intelligence information." That phrase is defined so nebulously that it could be read to encompass virtually every communication with one end outside the United States.
Some commentators have worried that the government could use this broad surveillance power to conduct economic espionage or to spy on Americans it hoped to convert into confidential informants.
New Documents Shed Light on One of the NSA's Most Powerful Tools [Alex Abdo/ACLU]
(Icon: The Bug Stops Here , DonkeyHotey, CC-BY)