Last week, National Intelligence Director Gen. James R. Clapper sent a brief letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which he admitted that agents of the National Security Agency (NSA) have been reading innocent Americans' emails and text messages and listening to digital recordings of their telephone conversations that have been stored in NSA computers, without warrants obtained pursuant to the Constitution. That the NSA is doing this is not newsworthy -- Edward Snowden has told the world of this during the past 10 months. What is newsworthy is that the NSA has admitted this, and those admissions have far-reaching consequences.
Since the Snowden revelations first came to light last June, the NSA has steadfastly denied them. Clapper has denied them. The recently retired head of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander, has denied them. Even President Obama has stated repeatedly words to the effect that "no one is reading your emails or listening to your phone calls."
The official NSA line on this has been that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court has issued general warrants for huge amounts of metadata only, but not content. Metadata consists of identifying markers on emails, text messages and telephone calls. These markers usually identify the computer from which an email or text was sent or received, and the time and date of the transmission, as well as the location of each computer. Telephone metadata is similar. It consists of the telephone numbers used by the callers, the time, date and duration of the call, and the location of each telephone used in the call.
American telecommunications and Internet service providers have given this information to the NSA pursuant to warrants issued by secret FISA court judges. These warrants are profoundly unconstitutional, as they constitute general warrants. General warrants are not obtained by presenting probable cause of crime to judges and identifying the person from whom data is to be seized, as the Constitution requires. Rather, general warrants authorize a government agent to obtain whatever he wants from whomever he wants it.