Executive Order 12333

Executive Order (EO) 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 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (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 a standard process.

  1. Identifies foreign entities (persons or organizations) that have information responsive to an identified foreign intelligence requirement. For example, NSA works to identify individuals who may belong to a terrorist network.

  2. 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 they are taking direction from.

  3. Identifies how the foreign entities communicate (radio, e-mail, telephony, etc.).

  4. Identifies the telecommunications infrastructure used to transmit those communications.

  5. Identifies vulnerabilities in the methods of communication used to transmit them.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 the agencies other than those responsible for the actual collection.