What You Need to Know to Understand the NSA Spying Scandal
NSA? FISA? Prism? Feeling a little lost? No wonder. Here are answers to some basic questions to help you sort out whether to be very, very afraid of government snooping, or pleasantly reassured.
1. What’s the NSA and how does it relate to the CIA and the FBI?
Jokingly known as “No Such Agency” because of its secrecy, the NSA, or National Security Agency, is part of the Department of Defense. It operates the U.S. government’s most extensive electronic and online surveillance programs. NSA employees run enormous computer centers that analyze databases the agency obtains from phone companies, Internet providers, and other sources. The CIA and the FBI use NSA analysis as the basis for reports, such as the president’s daily intelligence briefing, and for particular investigations of suspected terrorists.
2. Who or what gives the NSA the authority to do its data collection?
The agency has broad power to gather information on foreign terrorists and spies under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That authority is not entirely unfettered, however. Congress, at least in theory, oversees the NSA. In addition, a special judicial panel called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) must approve the warrants the NSA needs to force phone companies and Internet providers to cough up records.
3. So, what’s Prism?
The Feds love code names, an affection for James Bond aesthetics that always makes revelation of secret operations more exciting. Prism is the code name for a classified program under which the NSA accessed the central computer servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, extracting e-mail, audio and video chats, photographs, documents, and other material. Prism came to light on June 6 as a result of reporting by the Washington Post and the British Guardian. The Obama Administration then confirmed much of what the newspapers reported. In an initiative parallel to Prism, the NSA obtained a secret order from the FISC compelling Verizon Communications to provide the agency with data on all its customers’ phone calls.