'Stellar Wind' collected Internet metadata through 2011

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Fallout from revelations of American Internet spying made by former intelligence community contractor Edward Snowden continues to pile up amid new disclosures made from the trove of documents Snowden made available to select publications.

Among those disclosures is a June 27 article by The Guardian based on a top secret draft report from the National Security Agency's inspector general and a Justice Department 2007 secret memo. The documents show that the Obama administration continued until 2011 a NSA surveillance program dubbed "Stellar Wind" to collect bulk Internet metadata (Internet protocol addresses, email addresses, dates and times, but not subject lines). At first, the program required at least one party to be outside the United States , but eventually the NSA gained authority to "analyze communications metadata associated with United States persons and persons believed to be in the United States," as the Justice Department memo says.

The program is different from PRISM, an intelligence community bulk collection program gathering the content, rather than just metadata, of communications made through major U.S. Internet companies but restricted by the FISA Amendments Act to communications involving non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located abroad and involved with terrorism or for purposes of foreign intelligence gathering.

An Obama administration spokesman told The Guardian that the Stellar Wind collection was authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court but was discontinued in 2011 "as the result of an interagency review." The British newspaper also notes that some Internet collection mechanisms remain in place, stating that it has additional records showing that he NSA in December 2012 launched a new program allowing it to analyze communications "with one end inside the U.S., leading to a doubling of the amount of data passing through its filters."

In a July 2 statement, two senators critical of the growth in surveillance by the intelligence community said legal authority for Stellar Wind stemmed from Section 215 of the Patriot Act, (codified at 50 USC § 1861), which permits the federal government to obtain "any tangible things" relevant to a terrorism investigation.

In the statement, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) say they were familiar with the collection. "We were very concerned about this program's impact on Americans' civil liberties and privacy rights, and we spent a significant portion of 2011 pressing intelligence officials to provide evidence of its effectiveness," they say, adding that they believe the intelligence community also "significantly exaggerated this program's effectiveness."

Intelligence community exaggeration has been a topic of discussion lately, especially following a March 12 hearing during which Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper "does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans."

Clapper replied "No sir…not wittingly." A June 21 statement (.pdf) from Clapper says the answer was based on Section 702 authorities (the FISA Amendments Act provision that authorizes PRISM), not Section 215 authority. "I realized later than Sen. Wyden was asking about Section 215 metadata collection, rather than content collection. Thus, my response was clearly erroneous – for which I apologize," the statement says.

For more:
- go to the June 27 Guardian report
- go to the top secret draft report
- go to the secret memo
- go to the July 2 statement
- go to the June 21 statement

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