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NSA given free rein in foreign spying

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By The Washington Post
Monday, June 30, 2014, 8:48 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Virtually no foreign government is off-limits for the National Security Agency, which has been authorized to intercept information from individuals “concerning” all but four countries on Earth, according to top-secret documents.

The United States has long had broad no-spying arrangements with those four countries — Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — in a group known collectively with the United States as the Five Eyes. But a classified 2010 legal certification and other documents indicate the NSA has been given a far more elastic authority than previously known, one that allows it to intercept through U.S. companies not just the communications of its overseas targets but any communications about its targets.

The certification — included among a set of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — lists 193 countries that would be of valid interest for intelligence. The certification permitted the agency to gather intelligence about entities such as the International Monetary Fund, European Union and International Atomic Energy Agency.

The NSA is not necessarily targeting all the countries or organizations identified in the certification, affidavits and an accompanying exhibit; it has only been given authority to do so. The privacy implications are far-reaching, civil liberties advocates say, because of the wide spectrum of people who might be engaged in communication about foreign governments and entities.

“These documents show the potential scope of the government's surveillance activities and the exceedingly modest role the court plays in overseeing them,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who had the documents described to him.

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