The graphing, or contact chaining, is conducted using details about phone calls and e-mails, known as “metadata,” but does not involve the communications’ content, according to the documents cited by the Times. It is supposed to be done for foreign intelligence purposes only, the documents state, but that category is extremely broad and may include everything from data about terrorism and drug smuggling to foreign diplomats and economic talks.
The revelation is the latest in a string of disclosures that began in June, when The Washington Post and the British newspaper the Guardian broke stories, based on Snowden’s documents about the NSA’s PRISM program, which collects digital communications from U.S. Internet companies, and about the collection of call-detail records from U.S. phone companies.
Snowden’s disclosures and the subsequent declassification of records by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and the nation’s secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have sparked widespread concern over the scope of the NSA’s surveillance and whether it appropriately balances Americans’ privacy rights with national security.
In response to the story, an NSA spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement that the NSA is a foreign intelligence agency and its activities are conducted according to procedures approved by the attorney general and defense secretary — and, where applicable, the surveillance court — to protect Americans’ privacy interests.
“We know there is a false perception out there that NSA listens to the phone calls and reads the e-mail of everyday Americans, aiming to unlawfully monitor or profile U.S. citizens,” the statement said. “It’s just not the case. NSA’s activities are directed against foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements from U.S. leaders in order to protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
“This report confirms what whistleblowers have been saying for years: The NSA has been monitoring virtually every aspect of Americans’ lives — their communications, their associations, even their locations,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Senior government officials, including the NSA’s director, Gen. Keith Alexander, have repeatedly asserted that the NSA’s surveillance programs are lawful and have been authorized by the surveillance court, Congress or both.