That means Americans’ personal emails can live in government computers, but analysts can’t access, read or listen to them unless the emails become relevant to a national security investigation.
The government doesn’t automatically delete the data, officials said, because an email or phone conversation that seems innocuous today might be significant a year from now.
What’s unclear to the public is how long the government keeps the data. That is significant because the U.S. someday will have a new enemy. Two decades from now, the government could have a trove of American emails and phone records it can tap to investigative whatever Congress declares a threat to national security.
The Bush administration shut down its warrantless wiretapping program in 2007 but endorsed a new law, the Protect America Act, which allowed the wiretapping to continue with changes: The NSA generally would have to explain its techniques and targets to a secret court in Washington, but individual warrants would not be required.
Congress approved it, with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in the midst of a campaign for president, voting against it.
“This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide,” Obama said in a speech two days before that vote. “I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom.”
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When the Protect America Act made warrantless wiretapping legal, lawyers and executives at major technology companies knew what was about to happen.
One expert in national security law, who is directly familiar with how Internet companies dealt with the government during that period, recalls conversations in which technology officials worried aloud that the government would trample on Americans’ constitutional right against unlawful searches, and that the companies would be called on to help.