James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, thinking very hard. Photo: AP

Will the NSA reveal how many Americans they spy on? Maybe! One thing is for certain, they are most definitely working very hard on it.

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This morning James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, told reporters “we are looking at several options right now, none of which are optimal.” Sounds promising!

For years civil liberties groups like the ACLU and some senators (namely Ron Wyden D-OR) have been trying to pry this information out of Clapper to no avail. There’s a famous 2013 video of Wyden asking Clapper if the NSA spies on millions of Americans, to which Clapper replies “not wittingly.”

There’s a renewed effort among senators and civil liberties groups to make intelligence agencies cough up details on how exactly they’re spying on Americans who haven’t been suspected of a crime. That’s because Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the provision that allows US Intelligence agencies to target the communications of foreigners, is due to sunset at the end of next year. In order to properly debate the merits of Section 702 surveillance, it would be nice to know how many Americans have had their information collected using this provision, how many times the government has searched data collected under Section 702 for information about Americans and if people are notified that information collected from 702 surveillance is being used against them in court.

Now, maybe the NSA would have a tough time analyzing exactly how many Americans they spied on using Section 702 data. Fortunately, The Washington Post analyzed 160,000 emails and instant messages in 2014 swept up by Section 702 surveillance, so it really shouldn’t be too hard for a massive intelligence agency like the NSA. The Post found that 90 percent of these conversations involved individuals who were not Section 702 targets, and over 50 percent involved U.S. citizens or residents. That seems pretty messed up if you ask me.

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It may also be why the U.S. government has dragged its feet on publicly admitting these numbers as it may shock Americans into urging their Senators to not reauthorize Section 702. Who knows!

There isn’t any particular law that requires U.S. intelligence agencies to disclose how many Americans they spied on, according to Neema Singh Guliani, legislative Counsel at the ACLU. But they still should. They work for you and are funded by your tax dollars. Everyone deserves to know how many millions of innocent Americans the NSA is collecting data on.

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“I think though it speaks to that they have have an obligation in their mission to do that,” Guliani told Gizmodo. “One of the core missions of the intelligence agencies is to protect privacy and civil liberties. It’s actually explicitly in their mission.”

[Reuters]