US intelligence director confirms that NSA runs warrantless searches of Americans’ communications

James R. Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, admitted in a letter made public Tuesday that the National Security Agency (NSA) conducts searches for the personal information of Americans among the vast numbers of call and email records it collects.

“There have been queries, using U.S. person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence by targeting non U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the U.S. pursuant to Section 702 of FISA,” wrote Clapper.

Since the NSA claims the right to collect the communications of people within multiple “hops,” or degrees of separation, from a foreign individual targeted for surveillance, the number of US citizens whose communications are being recorded is potentially vast.

Previously, the NSA and White House have insisted that the intelligence agencies merely store, but do not run searches against, these communications. But Clapper’s admission is a clear statement that the NSA, as a matter of procedure, not only collects, but views and monitors the correspondence of US citizens.

Clapper’s letter, dated March 28, was addressed to Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who had requested clarification on whether the NSA had conducted any warrantless queries using personal information of Americans.

In August, the Guardian released a top-secret internal NSA document leaked by Edward Snowden in which the NSA claimed it has legal authority to run searches of intercepted data based on the personal information of US citizens. The newspaper wrote that, “The National Security Agency has a secret backdoor into its vast databases under a legal authority enabling it to search for US citizens’ email and phone calls without a warrant.”

The Guardian quoted the NSA document as saying, “While the FAA 702 minimization procedures approved on 3 October 2011 now allow for use of certain United States person names and identifiers as query terms when reviewing collected FAA 702 data.”

Wyden told the newspaper, “Once Americans’ communications are collected, a gap in the law that I call the ‘back-door searches loophole’ allows the government to potentially go through these communications and conduct warrantless searches for the phone calls or emails of law-abiding Americans.”

In January, Wyden wrote a letter to Clapper asking for clarification on whether the NSA runs searches on the communications of US citizens.

In addition to admitting that the NSA conducts the queries, Clapper pointed blame back at the Senate in his reply, saying, “As you know, when Congress reauthorized Section 702, the proposal to restrict such queries was specifically raised and ultimately not adopted.”

Clapper was referring to the vote in December 2012 that re-authorized the 2008 FISA Amendments Act. In reauthorizing the bill, The Senate deliberately decided not to bar the NSA from running searches for the communications of Americans.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate intelligence committee, defended allowing the NSA to search for Americans’ information. “With respect to analyzing the information lawfully collected under Section 702, however, the intelligence community provided several examples in which it might have a legitimate foreign intelligence need to conduct queries in order to analyze data already in its possession,” Feinstein said in December 2012.

She added, “The Department of Justice and the intelligence community reaffirmed that any queries made of Section 702 data will be conducted in strict compliance with applicable guidelines and procedures, and do not provide a means to circumvent the general requirement to obtain a court order before targeting a US person under FISA.”

But this, despite Feinstein’s assurances, is the clear purpose of running such queries: to allow warrantless wiretapping, in violation of the Fourth Amendment, without even going through a rubber-stamp FISA court.

Clapper’s letter reaffirms the statements of Edward Snowden—which the US government attempts to deny—that the NSA and other intelligence agencies systematically record, transcribe, archive, and listen to the emails and telephone calls of Americans in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.

The letter likewise contradicts the repeated claims by the Obama Administration that the NSA spying program does not target Americans. In January, Obama declared in a televised speech that “the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security. Obama reemphasized that point in a speech at San Jose, California earlier this year, in which he declared, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”