The National Security Agency’s collection of information on Americans’ cellphone and Internet usage reaches far beyond the two programs that have received public attention in recent months, to a presidential order that is older than the Internet itself.
Approved by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Executive Order 12333 (referred to as “twelve-triple-three”) still governs most of what the NSA does. It is a sweeping mandate that outlines the duties and foreign intelligence collection for the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies. It is not governed by Congress, and critics say it has little privacy protection and many loopholes. What changes have been made to it have come through guidelines set by the attorney general or other documents.
The result is a web of intelligence law so complicated that it stymies even those tasked with interpreting it. As one former executive official said, “It’s complicated stuff.”
Confusing though it may be, the order remains the primary authority under which the country’s intelligence agencies conduct the majority of their operations.
Neither the office of Attorney General Eric Holder nor that of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper would comment about 12333.