NSA/CSS is charged with collecting and reporting intelligence for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes as an element of the U.S. Intelligence Community. We perform this mission by engaging in the collection of signals intelligence
, which is the production of foreign intelligence through the collection, processing, and analysis of communications or other data, passed or accessible by radio, wire, or other electromagnetic means.
Every intelligence activity NSA/CSS undertakes is necessarily constrained to these central foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes. Because our world is increasingly interconnected, our challenge is to find and report on the communications of foreign intelligence value while respecting privacy and civil liberties
. We do not sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of national security because both are integral to who we are as Americans. NSA/CSS conducts its operations in a manner that respects both. We achieve this through a carefully designed system that is consistent with our authorities and controls and enabled by capabilities that allow us to collect, analyze, and report intelligence needed to protect national security.
Executive Order 12333
Executive Order 12333 is the foundational authority by which NSA collects, retains, analyzes, and disseminates foreign signals intelligence information. The principal application of this authority is the collection of communications by foreign persons that occur wholly outside the United States. To the extent a person located outside the United States communicates with someone inside the United States or someone inside the United States communicates with a person located outside the United States those communications could also be collected. Collection pursuant to EO 12333 is conducted through various means around the globe, largely from outside the United States, which is not otherwise regulated by FISA. Intelligence activities conducted under this authority are carried out in accordance with minimization procedures established by the Secretary of Defense and approved by the Attorney General.
To undertake collections authorized by EO 12333, NSA uses a variety of methodologies. Regardless of the specific authority or collection source, NSA applies the process described below.
- NSA identifies foreign entities (persons or organizations) that have information responsive to an identified foreign intelligence requirement. For instance, NSA works to identify individuals who may belong to a terrorist network.
- NSA develops the "network" with which that person or organization's information is shared or the command and control structure through which it flows. In other words, if NSA is tracking a specific terrorist, NSA will endeavor to determine who that person is in contact with, and who he is taking direction from.
- NSA identifies how the foreign entities communicate (radio, e-mail, telephony, etc.)
- NSA then identifies the telecommunications infrastructure used to transmit those communications.
- NSA identifies vulnerabilities in the methods of communication used to transmit them.
- NSA matches its collection to those vulnerabilities, or develops new capabilities to acquire communications of interest if needed. This process will often involve the collection of communications metadata - data that helps NSA understand where to find valid foreign intelligence information needed to protect U.S. national security interests in a large and complicated global network. For instance, the collection of overseas communications metadata associated with telephone calls - such as the telephone numbers, and time and duration of calls - allows NSA to map communications between terrorists and their associates. This strategy helps ensure that NSA's collection of communications content is more precisely focused on only those targets necessary to respond to identified foreign intelligence requirements.
- NSA uses EO 12333 authority to collect foreign intelligence from communications systems around the world. Due to the fragility of these sources, providing any significant detail outside of classified channels is damaging to national security. Nonetheless, every type of collection undergoes a strict oversight and compliance process internal to NSA that is conducted by entities within NSA other than those responsible for the actual collection.
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA)
FISA regulates certain types of foreign intelligence collection including certain collection that occurs with compelled assistance from U.S. telecommunications companies. Given the techniques that NSA must employ when conducting NSA's foreign intelligence mission, NSA quite properly relies on FISA authorizations to acquire significant foreign intelligence information and will work with the FBI and other agencies to connect the dots between foreign-based actors and their activities in the U.S. The FISA Court plays an important role in helping to ensure that signals intelligence collection governed by FISA is conducted in conformity with the requirements of the statute. All three branches of the U.S. Government have responsibilities for programs conducted under FISA, and a key role of the FISA Court is to ensure that activities conducted pursuant to FISA authorizations are consistent with the statute, as well as the U.S. Constitution, including the Fourth Amendment.