Ann Heisenfelt, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Eager to quell a domestic furor over U.S. spying, the nation's top intelligence official stressed Saturday that a previously undisclosed program for tapping into Internet usage is authorized by Congress, falls under strict supervision of a secret court and cannot intentionally target a U.S. citizen. He decried the revelation of that and another intelligence-gathering program as reckless.
For the second time in three days, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper took the rare step of declassifying some details of an intelligence program to respond to media reports about counterterrorism techniques employed by the government.
"Disclosing information about the specific methods the government uses to collect communications can obviously give our enemies a 'playbook' of how to avoid detection," he said in a statement.
Clapper said the data collection under the program, first unveiled by the newspapers The Washington Post and The Guardian, was with the approval of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court and with the knowledge of Internet service providers. He emphasized that the government does not act unilaterally to obtain that data from the servers of those providers.
Clapper's reaction came a day after President Barack Obama defended the counterterrorism methods and said Americans need to "make some choices" in balancing privacy and security. But the president's response and Clapper's unusual public stance underscore the nerve touched by the disclosures and the sensitivity of the Obama administration to any suggestion that it is trampling on the civil liberties of Americans.
Late Thursday, Clapper declassified some details of a phone records collection program employed by the National Security Agency that aims to obtain from phone companies on an "ongoing, daily basis" the records of its customers' calls. Clapper said that under that court-supervised program, only a small fraction of the records collected ever get examined because most are unrelated to any inquiries into terrorism activities.
His statement and declassification Saturday addressed the Internet scouring program, code-named PRISM, that allowed the NSA and FBI to tap directly into the servers of major U.S. Internet companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL. Like the phone-records program, PRISM was approved by a judge in a secret court order. Unlike that program, however, PRISM allowed the government to seize actual conversations: emails, video chats, instant messages and more.
Clapper said the program, authorized in the USA Patriot Act, has been in place since 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, and "has proven vital to keeping the nation and our allies safe.
"It continues to be one of our most important tools for the protection of the nation's security," he said.
Among the previously classified information about the Internet data collection that Clapper revealed:
—It is an internal government computer system that allows the government to collect foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers under court supervision.
—The government does not unilaterally obtain information from the servers of U.S. electronic communication service providers. It requires approval from a FISA Court judge and is conducted with the knowledge of the provider and service providers supply information when they are legally required to do so.
—The program seeks foreign intelligence information concerning foreign targets located outside the United States under court.
—The government cannot target anyone under the program unless there is an "appropriate, and documented, foreign intelligence purpose" for the acquisition. Those purposes include prevention of terrorism, hostile cyber activities or nuclear proliferation. The foreign target must be reasonably believed to be outside the United States. It cannot intentionally target any U.S. citizen or any person known to be in the U.S.
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