A New Day at the NSA
Individually, the concrete steps President Obama announced Friday toward reforming the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs were modest. Taken together, though, they signal the end of an era of unfettered escalation in U.S. intelligence-gathering.
Since its establishment in 1952, the NSA’s history has been one of almost nonstop expansion. But for most of that time, the agency still faced limits on what kind of information it could gather and in the legal strictures that governed its programs.
That changed after the terrorist attacks of 2001, which prompted then-President George W. Bush to demand an all-out effort to collect every scrap of information available.
His order came at a time when the Internet, email, instant messaging and low-cost voice communications were pouring an unprecedented amount of private information into a global electronic network, available for sophisticated eavesdroppers to tap.
Bush brushed aside legal constraints and ordered the NSA to collect domestic telephone and email communications without court warrants. Later, Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court legalized much of that program retroactively, including the NSA’s collection of domestic telephone call records, known as metadata. The principle driving intelligence-gathering had become collect first, ask questions later.
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