The NSA has been sifting through international email and text messages of Americans who mention information about foreign targets, according to a New York Times report citing unnamed intelligence officials. Critics are calling the actions illegal under current U.S. law.
The move, which further raises the question about whether or not the U.S. government is invading the privacy of citizens in its hunt for foreign terrorists, seems to go beyond the scope of previous reports.
The revelations from NSA leaker Edward Snowden, which first ran in the Guardian, said that the agency was filtering the electronic communications of people in direct connection with foreign suspects, and that it simply had the capability of deeper domestic surveillance.
But in this new scenario, according to the Times report, the NSA is sifting through the electronic correspondence of anyone who so much as mentions a name, email address or other shred of information linked to an overseas target when sending an email or other message across the border into another country.
Privacy advocates are quick to stress the potential constitutional illegality of such a move, with a least one, Jennifer Stisa Granick, saying outright "it's illegal."
"The way they do the surveillance, they know for certain they are listening in on Americans," Stisa Granick, director of civil liberties for Stanford's Center for Internet and Society, told NBC News via email.
"The program described by the New York Times involves a breathtaking invasion of millions of people's privacy," wrote Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director, in a statement. "The NSA has cast a massive dragnet over Americans' international communications, collecting and monitoring virtually all of them, and retaining some untold number of them in government databases. This is precisely the kind of generalized spying that the Fourth Amendment was intended to prohibit."
Jaffer also raises the concern at how this sort of increased surveillance can hamper free speech.
"The government's scrutiny of virtually every international email sent by Americans will have extraordinary consequences for free expression," wrote Jaffer. "Americans will inevitably hesitate to discuss controversial topics, visit politically sensitive websites or interact with foreigners with dissenting views. By injecting the NSA into virtually every cross-border interaction, the U.S. government will forever alter what has always been an open exchange of ideas."
When the New York Times contacted NSA spokeswoman Judith A. Emmel for comment, she did not address the new allegations, but did say the agency acted within the law, and that its actions were meant to help gather information about "foreign powers and their agents, foreign organizations, foreign persons or international terrorists" — and not about Americans.
— Additional reporting by NBC News contributor Suzanne Choney. The story was updated at 2 p.m. ET with additional legal analysis.
First published August 8 2013, 11:00 AM