The U.S. National Security Agency collected the email and Internet use records of some U.S. residents for about a decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to documents published Thursday by the U.K. newspaper the Guardian.
The NSA's collection of email and Internet use metadata was authorized by former President George W. Bush after 9/11 and continued for two years under President Barack Obama, according to the Guardian's report.
The Guardian published two secret documents on the so-called Stellar Wind collection program, a March 2009 NSA inspector general's report on the program and a November 2007 U.S. Department of Justice memo defending the collection.
The inspector general's report says the White House, including members of then-Vice President Dick Cheney's staff, pushed the NSA to collect more information on U.S. residents in the days following the terrorist attacks. When General Michael Hayden, the NSA's director at the time, said he didn't believe the NSA had the authority to collect U.S. communications, the White House granted the NSA additional authority.
Shawn Turner, spokesman for the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the program stopped in 2011. "The Internet metadata collection program authorized by the FISA court was discontinued in 2011 for operational and resource reasons and has not been restarted," he said by email. "The program was discontinued by the executive branch as the result of an interagency review."
The new revelations of NSA surveillance on U.S. residents follow news reports earlier this month that the NSA is currently collecting all telephone records from Verizon Communications. The agency is also collecting email and Internet communications from nine Web companies, including Google, Microsoft and Apple, with some U.S. communications swept up along with foreign targets, according to news reports.
The NSA inspector general's report says 92 percent of the targets in the collection program from 2001 to 2007 were email addresses and phone calls outside the U.S. There were just over 3,000 targets in the U.S. during that time frame, according to the report.
The 2007 DOJ memo, from Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein, defended the program, saying it doesn't violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment protecting U.S. residents against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"We conclude that a person has no such expectation, however, in dialing, routing, addressing, or signaling information that does not concern the substance, purport, or meaning of communications," Wainstein wrote. "We note that the analysis of information legally within the possession of the Government is likely neither a 'search' nor a 'seizure' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment."
The NSA's collection of telephone and Internet communications metadata included "routing, addressing, and signaling information that does not concern the substance" of the underlying communications, wrote Wainstein, now in private practice.
Wainstein didn't immediately respond to a request for a comment on the memo he authored. The DOJ memo came in response to an NSA request seeking to clarify that it had authorization to collect Internet metadata from U.S. residents.
NSA critics have said that the collection of metadata, including the recipients of phone calls and email and the time of the calls and emails, can tell a great deal about a person and is a privacy violation.
The NSA U.S. collections are "pretty outrageous," digital rights activist Sina Khanifar said in an email. "Anyone who claims that the NSA's surveillance hasn't been in violation of our Fourth Amendment rights is going to have a much harder time making that argument in light of this news."
Khanifar helped launch the website StopWatching.us two weeks ago, and the site has collected more than 512,000 signatures of people calling on the U.S. government to stop spying on them.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.