What You Need to Know to Understand the NSA Spying Scandal

Photograph by De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images

NSA? FISA? Prism? Feeling a little lost? No wonder. Here are answers to some basic questions to help you sort out whether to be very, very afraid of government snooping, or pleasantly reassured.

1. What’s the NSA and how does it relate to the CIA and the FBI?
Jokingly known as “No Such Agency” because of its secrecy, the NSA, or National Security Agency, is part of the Department of Defense. It operates the U.S. government’s most extensive electronic and online surveillance programs. NSA employees run enormous computer centers that analyze databases the agency obtains from phone companies, Internet providers, and other sources. The CIA and the FBI use NSA analysis as the basis for reports, such as the president’s daily intelligence briefing, and for particular investigations of suspected terrorists.

2. Who or what gives the NSA the authority to do its data collection?
The agency has broad power to gather information on foreign terrorists and spies under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That authority is not entirely unfettered, however. Congress, at least in theory, oversees the NSA. In addition, a special judicial panel called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) must approve the warrants the NSA needs to force phone companies and Internet providers to cough up records.

3. So, what’s Prism?
The Feds love code names, an affection for James Bond aesthetics that always makes revelation of secret operations more exciting. Prism is the code name for a classified program under which the NSA accessed the central computer servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, extracting e-mail, audio and video chats, photographs, documents, and other material. Prism came to light on June 6 as a result of reporting by the Washington Post and the British Guardian. The Obama Administration then confirmed much of what the newspapers reported. In an initiative parallel to Prism, the NSA obtained a secret order from the FISC compelling Verizon Communications to provide the agency with data on all its customers’ phone calls.

4. What rules does the NSA have to follow?
Let’s use the telephone surveillance program to illustrate. The FBI sought a warrant from the judges on the FISC to get the Verizon records. The FISC approved the warrant on April 25, according to the Guardian. The warrant required Verizon to supply the NSA with information for three months on calls inside the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries on a daily and “ongoing” basis.

5. Should we feel reassured by the procedures the NSA has to follow?
Depends whom you ask. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the Internet and telephone surveillance appropriate and well supervised. “Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats,” Clapper said in a statement about the Internet effort. He added that under FISA, the NSA may not “intentionally target any U.S. citizen” or anyone else located in the U.S. On the telephone program, he said that the intelligence oversight court “only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, in contrast, condemned the surveillance as abusive. “Unchecked government surveillance presents a grave threat to democratic freedoms,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement. “These revelations are a reminder that Congress has given the executive branch far too much power to invade individual privacy.”

6. What about Congress?
Senior lawmakers said the spies kept them in loop and acted to protect national security. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the panel’s ranking Republican, said they have been kept informed under the FISA. “Terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing we have to protect us is good intelligence,” Feinstein told reporters.

7. OK, then is this really a scandal?
Not according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Everybody should just calm down,” the Nevada Democrat said at a press conference in Washington. “It’s a program that’s worked to prevent not all terrorism, but certainly a vast majority of it.”

One reason controversy flared is that the NSA revelations came as President Barack Obama is being challenged on other fronts because of his administration’s aggressive investigations of security leaks to the media. Another factor is that Prism has its roots in much-criticized domestic surveillance efforts conducted without judicial warrants during the Bush Administration.

Whatever one’s opinion of what the NSA has been up to, it is safe to predict that the vast expansion of intelligence-gathering in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 guarantees continued tension between civil liberties and attempts to stop terrorism.

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