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Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder – U.S. Domestic Surveillance

“Two NSA surveillance programs have been exposed in press reports in June 2013. First, a Guardian report disclosed a classified FISC court order instructing Verizon, one of the largest U.S. telecommunications firms, to hand over phone records of millions of Americans to the NSA. Amid criticism from civil rights groups, the Obama administration defended the surveillance program, saying it is legal, limited, and effective in preventing terrorist attacks. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the program does not monitor phone calls, but acquires telephony metadata to be queried only when there is a “reasonable suspicion” of links to a foreign terrorist organization. Experts say the White House is likely relying on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a provision that says government can mandate the turnover of “any tangible things” from any entity as long as the items are for an investigation to defend against international terrorism or spying. In congressional testimony, NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander credited his agency’s surveillance with helping prevent “dozens” of terrorist attacks, and said he welcomed a debate on the legality of the programs.”

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