One of the NSA programs in question allows the agency to collect the metadata of US phone calls – numbers called and the duration of calls, the sort of information contained in phone bills. This metadata does not contain an individual’s identity, or the location from which calls were made, said Deputy US Attorney General James Cole.
“We don’t get any content,” said Mr. Cole. “This is under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which has been reauthorized twice by Congress."
This collection only occurs pursuant to court orders. Officials need a further individualized, court-approved warrant to look at the data of a particular person. Its use is subject to extensive internal audits, including an annual inspector general report, and is described to Congress, said US officials.
The other program allows the NSA to collect the Internet activity of non-US persons who are not in the United States but whose web usage is handled by US-based servers, under authority of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has to approve all Section 702 actions.
“Section 702 cannot be and is not used to intentionally target any US citizen,” said NSA Deputy Director John Chris Inglis.
Mr. Inglis said that the Section 702 program was involved in 90 percent of the 50 thwarted plots. He added that it was analogous to spying on foreign nationals in their own countries, which is something US intelligence historically did as a national security matter without court oversight. Thus, the involvement of a court represents a “tightening” of oversight, he said.