"Hoovering" data on Americans: The continuing drip of disclosures on NSA domestic spying

Whatever one may think of Edward Snowden, his initial disclosure to the Guardian and the Washington Post have led to many more that show the breadth of the NSA domestic espionage.  The public and pundits are continuing to debate these programs legality, and increasingly, why these programs are legal in the first place.  In recent days, the following information has emerged.

1)  The data collection is lot larger than just collecting phone records of persons who call overseas.  The NSA spying program is much larger than Verizon handing over phone records.  It includes PRISM, the program that gathers internet browsing activity via the largest internet providers such as Microsoft and Yahoo, but even PRISM is the tip of the iceberg of a much larger data collection operation. 

Today's Washington Post describes 4 separate programs under the umbrella name STELLERWIND that are broad enough to touch most American's lives.  Two programs collect and store meta data  about the telephone ("MAINWAY") and internet data ("MARINA") use.  Two other smaller programs collect information on content.  "NUCLEON" collects information about your phone call contents.

The Post described these collective programs this way, "[Although] Foreigners, not Americans, are the NSA’s 'targets,' as the law defines that term. But the programs are structured broadly enough that they touch nearly every American household in some way."

2)  Much of the gathering of data has been warrantless. Despite NSA's prohibition from spying domestically, which is the FBI's territory and which requires warrants, and contra all the assurances from public officials that everything done was legal and blessed by federal courts,  tons of personal data on Americans has been collected in warrantless vacuuming up huge depositories of personal data.

CNET reported that "The National Security Agency has acknowledged in a new classified briefing that it does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls."  From an interview with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), CNET added:

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.

3)  Continued stonewalling by intelligence officials about the number of Americans spied upon.  The Washington Post article by Barton Gellman today reported that:

Current NSA director Keith B. Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. have resolutely refused to offer an estimate of the number of Americans whose calls or e-mails have thus made their way into content databases such as ­NUCLEON.

Perhaps a Microsoft analyst quoted by AP said it best: "Inside Microsoft, some called it 'Hoovering' — not after the vacuum cleaner, but after J. Edgar Hoover, the first FBI director, who gathered dirt on countless Americans."