According to 18 U.S. CODE § 2511 -(Interception and disclosure of wire, oral or electronic communications prohibited)
It is a criminal act if a person or organization "intentionally intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept, any wire, oral, or electronic communication"
The intelligence agencies of the United States have claimed that the FISA Court has given approval for the copious amount of National Security Letter (NSL) requests that have been filed by various agencies in the past year(s). Through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Federation of American Scientists there were 1,789 requests made for electronic surveillance in 2012. One request was withdrawn by the U.S. government, the rest were approved and only 40 requests were modified in any way. That is 100% approval rating for surveillance requests. Even in the best of circumstances one would think that there would be at least a 10% margin of denial.
With a "rubber stamp" given to intelligence agencies there is absolutely no oversight at the judicial level. There are mechanisms for accountability in place, however they seem to have been undermined by over-zealous intelligence agencies with budgets that are kept secret. James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence was quoted in a New York Times article “Our budgets are classified as they could provide insight for foreign intelligence services to discern our top national priorities, capabilities and sources and methods that allow us to obtain information to counter threats,”
The problem is that secret budgets also allow for the expenditure of funds that would not necessarily meet the approval of the very people who provide them. The Washington Post has published the "Black Budget" which exceeds $52 Billion. With the FISA Court giving approval on every request for surveillance, virtually no congressional over-sight, and what we now know from the Edward Snowden leaks, privacy advocates have a very legitimate reason to be highly motivated to force more transparency and accountability.
Legally speaking, there is no law that explicitly gives any agency the right to collect information on an American citizen without a warrant. The only exceptions are as follows:
"(7) Notwithstanding any other provision of this chapter, any investigative or law enforcement officer, specially designated by the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Associate Attorney General, or by the principal prosecuting attorney of any State or subdivision thereof acting pursuant to a statute of that State, who reasonably determines that—
(a) an emergency situation exists that involves—
(i) immediate danger of death or serious physical injury to any person,
(ii) conspiratorial activities threatening the national security interest, or
(iii) conspiratorial activities characteristic of organized crime,
that requires a wire, oral, or electronic communication to be intercepted before an order authorizing such interception can, with due diligence, be obtained, and
(b) there are grounds upon which an order could be entered under this chapter to authorize such interception,
may intercept such wire, oral, or electronic communication if an application for an order approving the interception is made in accordance with this section within forty-eight hours after the interception has occurred, or begins to occur. In the absence of an order, such interception shall immediately terminate when the communication sought is obtained or when the application for the order is denied, whichever is earlier. In the event such application for approval is denied, or in any other case where the interception is terminated without an order having been issued, the contents of any wire, oral, or electronic communication intercepted shall be treated as having been obtained in violation of this chapter, and an inventory shall be served as provided for in subsection (d) of this section on the person named in the application."
The wording and interpretations here are obvious, there must be some form of overwhelming threat to human life and/or national security in order to satisfy the requirements for "warrantless" surveillance. The NSA has been collecting every single phone call with-in the United States for some time now. A former employee at AT&T made a public declaration and swore under oath about facts he was privy to while working for AT&T. Now we know that every mobile carrier in the U.S. has been subject to either forced cooperation or have had their system compromised but agencies within the intelligence network.
The activities described here are not the whole story. The truth is that we may never know all the activities that the NSA has been involved in regarding domestic surveillance. What we do know is that these agencies have in fact committed federal offenses. If it were a single person not affiliated with the government whom committed these same crimes, they would no doubt be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Edward Snowden monitored, stored and shared information that he was not legally allowed to, and politicians are calling for him to treated as a traitor, the NSA monitors, stores, analyses and disseminates everyone's information and no one has discussed much less proposed that they should be prosecuted for what is clearly the same crime.
By: Joseph Spencer