A report in a major U.S. newspaper said when the National Security Agency intercepted the online accounts of legally targeted foreigners over a four-year period, the agency also collected the conversations of nine times as many ordinary Internet users, both Americans and non-Americans.
The Washington Post, in a story posted on its website late Saturday, said nearly half of the surveillance files contained names, e-mail addresses or other details the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents.
"Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations, which former NSA contractor Edward Snowden provided in full to The Post, were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else," the Post said of its four-month study of the NSA-intercepted electronic data.
Asylum in Russia
Snowden, 30, who fled the United States, was granted temporary asylum by Russia last August after shaking the U.S. intelligence establishment with a series of devastating leaks on mass surveillance in the United States and around the world.
By law, the NSA may “target” only foreign nationals located overseas unless it obtains a warrant based on probable cause from a special surveillance court, the Post reported.
“Incidental collection” of third-party communications is inevitable in many forms of surveillance, according to the newspaper. In the case of the material Snowden provided, those in an online chat room visited by a target or merely reading the discussion were included in the data sweep, as were hundreds of people using a computer server whose Internet protocol was targeted.
The newspaper said there were "discoveries of considerable intelligence value" in the intercepted messages, including revelations about a secret overseas nuclear project, double-dealing by "an ostensible ally," an unfriendly power's military calamity, and the identities of aggressive intruders into U.S. computer networks.
The Post says the files show that months of tracking communications across more than 50 alias accounts "led directly" to the 2011 capture in Abbotabad of Muhammad Tahir Shahzad, a Pakistan-based bomb builder, as well as Umar Patek, a suspect in a 2002 bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali, it said.
However, The Washington Post reports many of the other files described as useless by NSA analysts were retained.
The newspaper said those files have a "startling intimate, even voyeuristic quality," telling stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes.
The Post said the daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are, nevertheless, catalogued and recorded.
The paper said it reviewed about 160,000 emails and instant-message conversations and 7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts, collected between 2009 and 2012.
The cache Snowden provided to the newspaper came from domestic NSA operations under the broad authority granted by Congress in 2008 with amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, according to the Post.
U.S. intelligence officials declined to confirm or deny in general terms the authenticity of the intercepted content provided by Snowden to the Post.
Last week the Post reported that all but four countries - Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- were seen as valid spy targets for the NSA.
Germany's parliament is investigating the extent of spying by the NSA and its partners on German citizens and politicians, and whether German intelligence aided its activities.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AFP and AP.