Congressman denies report claiming NSA can listen to calls without warrants

Congressman denies report claiming NSA can listen to calls without warrants

Summary: CORRECTED: The politician who allegedly said the U.S. National Security Agency can listen to phone calls of both U.S. residents and foreign nationals without a court order debunks the original report.

The National Security Agency's headquarters in Ft. Meade, Md., in an undated file photo. (Image: NSA)

Update at 2:50 a.m. ET on June 17: This ZDNet article has been amended several times following Rep. Nadler's latest comments casting doubt on CNET's original story. (Author's note: The wording of the previous sentence was changed as in my opinion it was unnecessarily inflammatory. I personally regret the confusion.) In a statement to our sister site, Nadler said: "I am pleased that the administration has reiterated that, as I have always believed, the NSA cannot listen to the content of Americans’ phone calls without a specific warrant." We've left the amended article (after the update below) intact for transparency, but corrected the headline.

Update at 10:20 p.m. ET on June 16: The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement, debunking the claims. "The statement that a single analyst can eavesdrop on domestic communications without proper legal authorization is incorrect and was not briefed to Congress," the statement read.

Update at 11:55 p.m. ET on June 15: There appears to be some conflicting reports over the exact wording of Nadler's remarks. There is also a video on C-SPAN (the exchange begins around the 46:00 mark) but it remains unclear if this is the exchange CNET first referenced. CNET specifically said, at the time of writing, that Nadler was told "during a secret briefing to members of Congress" this week. We've updated the story in a couple of places, and amended the headline, but much of the article remains the same. 

Analysts at the U.S. National Security Agency not only sift through the metadata associated with your calls — they also have the ability to listen in on conversations in real time, according to a report.

The news, which was first reported by sister site CNET's Declan McCullagh, cited Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) who was told during a briefing to members of Congress that phone calls could be listened to "simply based on an analyst deciding that."

It comes just over a week after U.S. President Barack Obama stated: "Nobody is listening to your phone calls."

Nadler was also allegedly told that the NSA does not seek legal authorization from a court to allow its analysts and staff to listen in on calls, even U.S. domestic calls. And, because the same laws that apply to phone calls also include emails, instant messages, and text messages, it is possible that contents of Internet communications could also be accessed under the same premise.

Senate Intelligence committee chairperson Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) confirmed on Thursday, according to the report, that a court order is not necessary for the NSA to search its call data database that it collects under secret orders from major U.S. telecom firms.

Feinstein also said: "To look at or use the content of a call, a court warrant must be obtained," indicating that though a court order is required, the NSA does in fact collect the audio contents of calls.

Claims made in a video by Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked documents to The Guardian newspaper in London, that he could "wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president" may prove accurate.

It also comes a month after former FBI counter-terrorism agent Tim Clemente disclosed to CNN that under certain investigations relating to the protection of national security, his former employer could access call records and contents of those calls.

"All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not," he claimed.

The NSA has faced extreme criticism and controversy over the past two weeks following leaks to U.S. and U.K. newspapers claiming that the intelligence agency had "direct access" to seven named companies, including Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

These claims were retracted by The Guardian and The Washington Post after the companies one after the other strenuously denied that the NSA could tap into their servers.

CNET notes that, though this whole NSA scandal began with the leaking of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) order, authorized under its namesake law which forced Verizon to hand over all tangible things to the agency, this latest twist in the ongoing surveillance saga does not relate to that order.

Topics: Security, Government US, Privacy

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  • Stalin and Mao would be green with envy

    if they knew that the US had *successfully* adopted their most authoritarian and repressive tactics. The only things we are missing are secret courts and gulags, oh wait ...
    terry flores
  • Wow

    It just gets worse. I hope ZDnet and Cnet are not the only news organizations running with this story. Everyone needs to know that our government is spying on us!
    David McHugh
    • Remember this line from Orwell's 1984?

      "Big Brother is watching you"

      It's probably true after all, and probably there would be a boot stamping on a face, real soon.
    • Most of the news agencies are downplaying the whole thing

      I listened to two different programs on CNN where they softballed the whole thing, feeding gimme lines to the interviewee and accepting at face value that "hundreds' of terrorist plots have been averted by open-ended surveillance. Fast-forward to a couple of years from now, and it will be "hundreds of drug deals", the justification for complete monitoring of all citizens will be indoctrinated into our everyday life. Privacy is not a right, they will say, and by that time it will be true ...
      terry flores
  • So how is that new?

    The Patriot Act came out a long time ago.
    D.J. 43
    • What's new about all this

      The news is that the Patriot Act doesn't actually say, "the government will record and store all telephone calls and emails and retrieve them for inspection whenever they decide that they are of interest. All calls will be stored permanently."

      What's new is that they actually seem to have this level of system in place. Apparently, all your calls are in fact recorded, all your emails are stored. No one is listening to your calls, but they are available if someone ever wants to.

      Hence the debate. Is this a good thing?
    • re: So how is that new?

      The Patriot act is gay?
      rocket ride
  • Not News

    Honestly, the NSA, FBI, CIA, etc. can do most of the things they are being accused of doing by citizens. And, yes, they can do them without warrants. Most organizations retrieve warrants on an Ex-Post-Facto basis, meaning, they do the work and get the judge to issue the warrant "after the fact." The thing is, if they don't get the warrant, and start listening to calls, etc. then, the "evidence" (and the reason for the quotes is because, without the warrant, it's not considered evidence yet) is inadmissible in court. But, people, really, do you honestly believe that, in a serious situation, that the NSA would sit around, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the judge to issue the warrant, just so they can listen to phone calls in real-time? Be realistic.
    • Realistic, yes. Constitutional and lawful, no.

      But the Constitution only survives as long as the citizens care about it. Obviously many like you do not, so it and many other concepts that made America a free country will disappear.
      terry flores
  • Freedom on the Rocks: Tyranny versus Terrorism

    Freedom on the Rocks: Tyranny versus Terrorism

    I called out this domestic eavesdropping abuse, in writing, on October 30, 2010 in the Rapid City Journal:

    “For national security purposes, Americans are already subject to warrantless wiretaps of calls and emails, the warrantless GPS “tagging” of their vehicles, the domestic use of Predators or other spy-in-the-sky drones, and the Department of Homeland Security’s monitoring of all our behavior through ‘data fusion centers.’ (Google that, it’s an eyeopener.)

    Where was the hue and cry or outrage?

    “I told you so” isn’t seemly, but it can be instructive. My warning then was accurate, my claims now confirmed by the NSA, and my conclusion vindicated.

    However, we’re still not being told the full truth.

    Our phone calls, GPS locations, emails, audios, videos, photographs, Google searches, Facebook postings, and domestic drone surveillance data are all being recorded for key words and patterns and then electronically “fused” (merged and collated) with a master data file that includes our banking records, credit card charges, travel records, store purchases, etc.

    Still evolving technically, the secret national security goal is to build, over time, a detailed mathematical 3-D model of every citizen’s psychographic patterns for behavior analysis and prediction purposes (seriously “Big Brother”- go rent the sci-fi film Minority Report).

    How do I know this? Simple, two Israeli firms with deep Mossad connections, Narus (now wholly-owned by Boeing) and Verint, drop-dead technical experts in behavior prediction modeling, are closely working with the NSA, DHS, etc. Narus’ corporate website home page clearly touts its advanced analytics as “Fusing together hundreds of data dimensions for deep, focused insight and control.”

    As former Booz Allen Hamilton NSA technical consultant, now fugitive whistleblower, Edward Snowden recently said ”…they are intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them.”

    The NSA is just now commissioning a massive $2 billion data fusion center in Bluffdale, Utah, where avatars (images used to represent each of us in their virtual world) will soon reside, subject to on-demand, retroactive digital strip searches of every aspect of our lives... all without our knowledge or permission.

    Worse, we’re already being digitally censored; when I tried to share the already released Anonymous web links to Snowden’s recently-revealed NSA documents proving we’re all being bugged, Facebook blocked my post.

    The 4th. Amendment to the U. S. Constitution clearly states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    Our rights trashed, America’s freedoms on rocks, the Federal government insists all its snooping actions are legal under the Patriot Act, FISA, the NDAA and their extensions.

    We’re given a choice of false alternatives; either submit to electronic tyranny... or risk more terror attacks. Hint: the hidden agenda is control.

    The dollar bill in our pocket or purse carries our nation’s symbolic “all-seeing eye” on its reverse side; how ironic it’s now been replaced by the NSA’s real “all-seeing eye” attached to our lifestyles and smart phones.

    Political philosopher Montesquieu said:"There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of law and in the name of justice."

    The scandals now in Washington make it clear power is being abused for political purposes; who’s watching the watchers?

    Wake-up America!
    • It's either this or health care

      One thing that no one has pointed out is what Americans are really paying for all this. Would you rather have massive data storage facilities that keep recordings of everyone's calls? Or would you rather have health care?

      Given the billions being spent on it, this is a real choice.
  • This means nothing.

    "I am pleased that the administration has reiterated that, as I have always believed, the NSA cannot listen to the content of Americans’ phone calls without a specific warrant."

    While this may technically be true I bet the number of reject warrant requests is zero. I'd be surprised if the court didn't authorize a warrant. But we'll never know because there's no transparency.
  • Correction


    And some perspective.

    Some 20,000 FISC warrants have been issued since 1978 and only a handful were rejected or modified.

    British newspapers are reporting that G20 officials, including US allies, were spied upon by the NSA.
    Tony Burzio
    • And by the British

      Not sure whether this is a division of labor (Gordon, your people eavesdrop on A-M and our people will eavesdrop on N-Z, then we will combine our results) or the result of both nations wanting to spy on each other AND everyone else. In fact, it is POSSIBLE that EVERY nation in the group is spying in the entire conference, to (a) find out what its "allies" are really thinking, and (b) make sure their own representatives are saying the right things.

      Well, look on the bright side. If you lose all your emails because you didn't run a backup, just call the NSA and ask for a refresh!
  • What powers did Snowden claim he commanded?

    With expressions like can, require, have the ability to, and others that are equally fuzzy around their own peculiar edges, it is pretty clear that the NSA, and probably others, too, have the technical capacity to listen in on any call that yields metadata. The questions about NSA's behavior, then, becomes whether NSA has now or ever violated any of the rules laid for it by Congress, as interpreted by the courts, whether the courts are secret or not; and if so, when and why.

    I have listened to the video that the clerk, Snowden, made to explain his release of "classified" information. I have heard it on three different outlets: Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. I have listened most closely to one phrase : "[my] desk has [authority]/[authorities]" to listen in etc., and goes on, "even to the president." Government spokes are quick to say, and reporters are equally assiduous in repeating, that Snowden had no such authority.

    Two questions arise from this patter we have been hearing: is the authority inherent in his job? that is, can he invoke such authority when and only when he is at his desk and on duty? Or has it been given to him, e.g., by means of a code he can use from any desk anywhere? the second question is: has he/his desk authority or authorities? It seemed to me I heard the plural, authorities, quite clearly on CNN and less clearly on Fox and MSNBC. This made me wonder whether 'authority' is a spook talk term synonymous with the geek talk term 'permission,' as on a Windows PC. A common example of such duplices in another secret world, the hospital, would be ER, for Emergency Room, and ED, for Emergency Department, the latter being the nternal (but hardly secret) professional or bureaucratic synonym for use within the hospital by hospital staff.

    Can anyone clarify these matters for an inquiring public? They do, after all, matter, if only because without clarifications it is hard to avoid talking at cross purposes.
    Alexander Mac Donald
    • Authority or Technical Capability?

      There are lots of things that people in the proper technical positions are ABLE to do, but are not AUTHORIZED to do. For example, the machine operators in a mainframe center COULD, if they dared to do so, erase all the backup tapes of the company's customer list, then erase the active file, thus destroying all the customer data for the company. But no one would DARE to do so without being SURE that the CEO really DID want to do that!

      Same thing, probably, for Snowden. He may have had to learn how, in terms of system passwords and the like, to steal data he has no legitimate need to know. But if he had really wanted to keep his job (and now, possibly, his citizenship and/or his life), he would not dare to enter those commands without the signed paperwork ordering him to do so.

      The fact that no one caught him in the act suggests that possibly his superiors knew what he was planning and planted disinformation in the files that he could see; and possibly MORE than disinformation. If I were China, I would NOT upload any of that data to the Chinese cloud (hopefully, they already have, and now the NSA can keep busy analyzing all the data coming from China).
  • The Cat's Out of the Bag; How Dumb Do They Think We Are?

    The intelligence community loves disinformation, and their retractions and denials are nothing more than that. They've seen how upset Americans are and now they are trying to change the narrative: that Eric Snowdon is a Chinese spy and/or a traitor and that of course they're not listening to our phone calls.

    Sure, right, and I have some Florida swampland for sale too. How dumb do they think "we the people" actually are? And who in the hell do they think THEY WORK FOR?
    Charles Boyer
  • Comment 443a_67.p1

    A congressman would not lie to you. Even one who has so many sleletons in his closet that only we know about.

    Trust your government people, or else.