In 2001, the Bush administration authorized -- almost certainly illegally -- the NSA to conduct bulk electronic surveillance on Americans: phone calls, e-mails, financial information, and so on. We learned a lot about the bulk phone metadata collection program from the documents provided by Edward Snowden, and it was the focus of debate surrounding the USA FREEDOM Act. E-mail metadata surveillance, however, wasn't part of that law. We learned the name of the program -- STELLAR WIND -- when it was leaked in 2004. But supposedly the NSA stopped collecting that data in 2011, because it wasn't cost-effective.
"The internet metadata collection program authorized by the FISA court was discontinued in 2011 for operational and resource reasons and has not been restarted," Shawn Turner, the Obama administration's director of communications for National Intelligence, said in a statement to the Guardian."
When Turner said that in 2013, we knew from the Snowden documents that the NSA was still collecting some Americans' Internet metadata from communications links between the US and abroad. Now we have more proof. It turns out that the NSA never stopped collecting e-mail metadata on Americans. They just cancelled one particular program and changed the legal authority under which they collected it.
The report explained that there were two other legal ways to get such data. One was the collection of bulk data that had been gathered in other countries, where the N.S.A.'s activities are largely not subject to regulation by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and oversight by the intelligence court.
The N.S.A. had long barred analysts from using Americans' data that had been swept up abroad, but in November 2010 it changed that rule, documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden have shown. The inspector general report cited that change to the N.S.A.'s internal procedures.
The other replacement source for the data was collection under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which permits warrantless surveillance on domestic soil that targets specific noncitizens abroad, including their new or stored emails to or from Americans.
In Data and Goliath, I wrote:
Some members of Congress are trying to impose limits on the NSA, and some of their proposals have real teeth and might make a difference. Even so, I don't have any hope of meaningful congressional reform right now, because all of the proposals focus on specific programs and authorities: the telephone metadata collection program under Section 215, bulk records collection under Section 702, and so on. It's a piecemeal approach that can't work. We are now beyond the stage where simple legal interventions can make a difference. There's just too much secrecy, and too much shifting of programs amongst different legal justifications.
The NSA continually plays this shell game with Congressional overseers. Whenever an intelligence-community official testifies that something is not being done under this particular program, or this particular authority, you can be sure that it's being done under some other program or some other authority. In particular, the NSA regularly uses rules that allow them to conduct bulk surveillance outside the US -- rules that largely evade both Congressional and Judicial oversight -- to conduct bulk surveillance on Americans. Effective oversight of the NSA is impossible in the face of this level of misdirection and deception.