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NSA can search emails and phone calls without warrant, report says

New details on the National Security Agency's surveillance program are coming to light Friday in a report by the Guardian, which is releasing more information about documents given to the newspaper by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The report suggests that the NSA can search the emails and phone calls of U.S. citizens without a warrant, using a secret backdoor to its database.

This report is the latest development since Snowden leaked data to the media about PRISM -- agovernment surveillance program that collected metadataover telecommunications lines.

According to the documents leaked by Snowden, a previously undisclosed rule change to Section 702 allows NSA to gather data about Americans using their names or other identifying information. However, the same document stipulates that analysts may not run a query on a United States person until "an effective oversight process has been developed" by the NSA and agreed to by Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It's not clear whether or not an oversight process has been developed, nor is there confirmation that any queries have been made against a U.S. citizen.

An excerpt from the document reads:

While the FAA 702 minimization procedures approved on 3 October 2011 now allow for use of certain United States person names and identifiers as query terms when reviewing collected FAA 702 data, analysts may NOT/NOT implement any USP queries until an effective oversight process has been developed by NSA and agreed to by DOJ/ODNI. Until further notice, analysts must ensure that database queries, including federated queries, of any USP selection terms are NOT run against collected FAA 702 data (702 data is contained in MARINA, MAINWAY, NUCLEAON, PINWALE (Sweet* and Sour* partitions) and other databases).

The Guardian says in NSA jargon, the term "identifiers" includes information like names, telephone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses and usernames.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Guardian he believes the law creates a loophole that would allow the NSA to search phone calls or emails of Americans without a warrant.

"Once Americans' communications are collected, a gap in the law that I call the 'back-door searches loophole' allows the government to potentially go through these communications and conduct warrantless searches for the phone calls or emails of law-abiding Americans," Wyden told the Guardian.

Last week, Wyden, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., submitted two bills that would reform the FISA court system. The first bill, called the FISA Court Reform Act of 2013, would create a special advocate who would argue for the right to privacy on behalf of Americans in FISA court. The second bill, titled FISA Judge Selection Reform Act, would change how judges are appointed to ensure a more diverse representation.

In his speech last week at the Black Hat cybersecurity conference, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander said there are 22 people at the NSA who can approve the surveillance of a phone number, and 35 analysts who are authorized to review the queries. The director said that if a query appeared unrelated to national security, its auditing tools would detect it and the analyst would have to explain their intent.

The Obama administration on Friday said it is taking steps to make surveillance programs more transparent, by releasing more details on how the programs operate -- starting with a document describing the NSA's jurisdiction under laws like the Patriot Act. The administration also plans to launch a website next week that will provide more transparency in the intelligence community.