National Security

Since Snowden spilled his secrets, U.S. surveillance targets have surged

National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, in photo taken before he was sworn in to office on March 16, 2017.
National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, in photo taken before he was sworn in to office on March 16, 2017. AP

In the four years since National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden blew the lid off U.S. surveillance overseas, the number of targets the U.S. is monitoring around the globe has steadily increased.

Last year, U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted communications on 106,469 targets, according to an annual report released Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

That’s up from 89,138 targets in 2013, the year Snowden fled his intelligence post in Hawaii and began spilling secrets on the extent of surveillance activities. Snowden now lives in exile in Moscow, where Russia protects him from facing U.S. charges under the Espionage Act.

The data is contained in an annual Statistical Transparency Report, which offers details on how the government employs certain national security powers given to it by Congress.

By “targets,” the report says, it refers to individuals, groups or even foreign nations that use a particular telephone number or email address.

One observer of the U.S. intelligence community said the rise in targets – which hit 92,707 in 2014 and 94,368 in 2015 – might reflect an increasingly diverse gamut of adversaries rather than an intensification of surveillance.

“It might be that you had to add thousands of Russian hackers that you might otherwise have thought didn’t have intelligence value, but now they do,” said Mieke Eoyang, vice president for the national security program at Third Way, which describes itself as a centrist think tank in Washington.

Interest in the report is likely to be high this year because some authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expire Dec. 31 and will lapse if Congress does not reauthorize them. Some lawmakers want revisions to the act to increase transparency and ensure public trust, while the White House seeks renewal of the spy law without changes.

Provisions in the act known as Section 702 empower the NSA to sweep the globe for intelligence. In his nomination hearing to serve as director of national intelligence, former Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana called Section 702 the “crown jewels” of the intelligence establishment.

Tuesday’s report offered only sketchy information about how U.S. citizens or permanent residents can fall into the surveillance net.

Under Section 702, the NSA can target non-U.S. citizens or residents believed to be outside the country and likely to have information of foreign intelligence value. If Americans or permanent residents are swept up in the search, they are considered “incidental” and their identities are “minimized” under what the report called “robust internal agency oversight.”

Under other sections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the NSA can target Americans overseas if the agency first obtains a court order with probable cause. Tuesday’s report said that in 2016 the agency had utilized that power to surveil 336 “U.S. persons,” which could be citizens or permanent residents, which comprises about 20 percent of the 1,687 targets of such surveillance.

Democratic and some Republican members of Congress have pressed Coats to provide Capitol Hill with the extent of the NSA’s “incidental” collection of communications by “U.S. persons” each year who may be parties to emails or phone calls – or even mentioned in those communications – with foreign targets of surveillance.

In an April 7 letter to Coats, the chairman and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and John Conyers, D-Mich., respectively, said Congress had waited a year for unclassified information about those incidental collections. They told Coats they wanted an answer by April 24.

As of Tuesday, Coats had provided no public answer.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4