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CRS: NSA Surveillance Leaks: Background and Issues for Congress

September 4, 2013


"Recent media stories about National Security Agency surveillance address unauthorized disclosures of two different intelligence collection programs. These programs arise from provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. However, they rely on separate authorities, collect different types of information, and raise different policy questions. As such, where possible, the information contained in this report distinguishes between the two."

For both programs, there is a tension between the speed and convenience with which the government can access data of possible intelligence value and the mechanisms intended to safeguard civil liberties. The first program collects and stores in bulk domestic phone records that some argue could be gathered to equal effect through more focused records requests. The second program targets the electronic communications of non-U.S. persons while they are abroad, but also collects some communications unrelated to those targets.

The following sections address (1) what information is being collected; (2) the legal basis for the collection; (3) existing oversight mechanisms; and (4) arguments for and against the two programs. The last section of this report discusses legislation that has been proposed in response to information disclosed about NSA surveillance. Because documents leaked to the news media may be classified, CRS is precluded from providing a detailed analysis of the content of those documents. The information in this report is based largely on public comments from intelligence officials and Members of Congress.

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