Frequently Asked Questions about Signals Intelligence (SIGINT)
- What is Signals Intelligence?
- How are the activities of the NSA/CSS regulated and who monitors them?
- What defines the Intelligence Role of NSA/CSS?
- Who is considered a U.S. Person?
- Are U.S. persons outside the United States afforded protection?
- Couldn't NSA simply ask its allies to provide them with information about U.S. persons?
- How does the NSA/CSS ensure its employees are aware of and abide by the regulations?
1. What is Signals Intelligence?
SIGINT involves collecting foreign intelligence from communications and information systems and providing it to customers across the U.S. government, such as senior civilian and military officials. They then use the information to help protect our troops, support our allies, fight terrorism, combat international crime and narcotics, support diplomatic negotiations, and advance many other important national objectives.
NSA/CSS collects SIGINT from various sources, including foreign communications, radar and other electronic systems. This information is frequently in foreign languages and dialects, is protected by codes and other security measures, and involves complex technical characteristics. NSA/CSS needs to collect and understand the information, interpret it, and get it to our customers in time for them to take action. Our workforce is deeply skilled in a wide range of highly-technical fields. Experts develop and employ state-of-the-art tools and systems that are essential to success in today's fast-changing communications and information environment. Our researchers are working constantly to help us anticipate and prepare for future developments.
2. How are the activities of the NSA/CSS regulated and who monitors them?
The U.S. Constitution, federal law, executive order, and regulations of the Executive Branch govern NSA's activities. As a defense agency, NSA operates under the authority of the Department of Defense. As a member of the Intelligence Community, NSA also operates under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. NSA/CSS activities are subject to strict scrutiny and oversight both from the outside and from within. External bodies such as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Justice provide oversight to ensure the Agency's adherence to U.S. laws and regulations. Internally, the Office of the Inspector General conducts inspections, audits, and investigations to make certain that NSA/CSS operates with integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness, while the Office of the General Counsel provides legal advice. Most importantly, each NSA/CSS employee is charged with knowing, understanding, and obeying to the fullest the laws of the nation.
3. What Defines the Intelligence Role of NSA/CSS?
Executive Order 12333 (EO 12333) authorizes agencies of the Intelligence Community to obtain reliable intelligence information, consistent with applicable Federal law and EO 12333, with full consideration of the rights of U.S. persons. Pursuant to EO 12333, NSA is authorized to collect, process, analyze, produce, and disseminate Signals Intelligence information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes to support national and departmental missions, and to provide signals intelligence support for the conduct of military operations. The executive order, however, prohibits the collection, retention, or dissemination of information about U.S. persons except pursuant to procedures established by the head of the agency and approved by the Attorney General.
4. Who is considered a U.S. person?
Federal law and executive order define a U.S. person as:
- a citizen of the United States;
- an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence;
- an unincorporated association with a substantial number of members who are citizens of the U.S. or are aliens lawfully admitted for permanent residence; or
- a corporation that is incorporated in the U.S.
5. Are U.S. persons outside the United States afforded protection?
Yes, the privacy rights of U.S. persons are protected regardless of their location.
6. Couldn't NSA simply ask its allies to provide them with information about U.S. persons?
No. NSA is prohibited from requesting any person to undertake activities that NSA itself is prohibited from conducting.
7. How does the NSA/CSS ensure its employees are aware of and abide by the regulations?
The NSA/CSS conducts extensive training of its employees to ensure that the workforce is aware and understands the regulations governing NSA/CSS activities. The members of the NSA/CSS work force charged with foreign intelligence production receive very specific training advising them of their responsibility to protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Access to intelligence information is contingent upon the completion of such training sessions.