[5/12/17] The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a report last year showing how many times federal officials requested the “unmasking” of the names of Americans captured in NSA surveillance for 2015. ODNI reported that 654 Americans had their names “unmasked” in NSA surveillance reports in response to requests from government officials. ODNI is now reporting that the actual number is 2,232.
The NSA — serving as the flagship of the surveillance state — is barred by law from directly spying on Americans. But given the unaccountable nature of the surveillance state, those restrictions do little to prevent Americans from being spied upon by the NSA and other agencies. The NSA routinely conducts surveillance that it knows will “accidentally” include the communications, locations, and other data of American citizens living stateside. When that happens, the NSA is required by law to “mask” (redact) the names of those Americans.
Theoretically, that “masking” process is supposed to protect the rights and identities of Americans; in practice, it does little more than add a small speed-bump on the road to the surveillance state. Beginning in 2011, President Obama made it easier — by executive orders which were approved by the United States Foreign Surveillance Court (FISC) — to “unmask” American citizens. Of course, the ostensible reason for Obama’s orders was to make it easier to fight terrorism. The net effect of those orders was the dismantling of yet another layer of legal protection preventing the NSA from doing what it is not supposed to do: spy on American citizens.
Evidence of the fact that the loophole was designed to be abused can be seen in a report from Circa showing that in the waning days of his presidency, Barack Obama “distributed thousands of intelligence reports with the unredacted names of U.S. residents.” The report says:
In all, government officials conducted 30,355 searches in 2016 seeking information about Americans in NSA intercept metadata, which include telephone numbers and email addresses. The activity amounted to a 27.5 percent increase over the prior year and more than triple the 9,500 such searches that occurred in 2013, the first year such data was kept.
The government in 2016 also scoured the actual contents of NSA intercepted calls and emails for 5,288 Americans, an increase of 13 percent over the prior year and a massive spike from the 198 names searched in 2013.