NSA monitoring Americans' emails for mentions of terrorists: report

Dylan Stableford
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³HONG KONG - 2013: (EDITOR'S NOTE: ONLY AVAILABLE TO NEWS ORGANISATIONS AND NOT FOR ENTERTAINMENT USE) In this handout photo provided by The Guardian, Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong. Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA, revealed details of top-secret surveillance conducted by the United States' National Security Agency regarding telecom data. (Photo by The Guardian via Getty Images)

The National Security Agency, which recently acknowledged the existence of a broad domestic surveillance program in the wake of former defense contractor Edward Snowden's controversial leak, is casting a wider net than previously thought, The New York Times reports.

The NSA is "not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas," a senior intelligence official told the paper. The agency also is "casting for people who cite information linked to those foreigners, like a little used e-mail address," systematically and without warrants, the paper said.

According to the Times, the NSA routinely conducts keyword searches for specific names or phrases linked to foreign terrorists. It's not clear how much cross-border data is being caught in the sweeps. But like the surveillance program Snowden exposed, U.S. officials contend, the broader monitoring of communications is covered under 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The FISA amendments allow warrant-less spying on U.S. citizens as long as the ultimate “target” of the surveillance was a foreigner living overseas.

NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel did not specifically address "surveillance of cross-border communications" but defended the agency's activities as lawful and focused on "foreign powers and their agents, foreign organizations, foreign persons or international terrorists" and not Americans.

“In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, N.S.A. collects only what it is explicitly authorized to collect,” Emmel told the Times. “Moreover, the agency’s activities are deployed only in response to requirements for information to protect the country and its interests.”

The Times report appears to confirm previous reporting by the Guardian newspaper, which first published Snowden's disclosures and identity setting off an international manhunt worthy of a spy novel. Snowden flew from Hawaii to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, where he was granted temporary asylum by the Russian government.