The top US intelligence official stressed on Saturday that a previously undisclosed program for tapping into Internet usage is authorized by the US Congress, falls under strict supervision of a secret court and cannot intentionally target a US citizen. He decried the revelation of that and another intelligence-gathering program as reckless.
US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, eager to quell a domestic furor over US spying, took the rare step for the second time in three days of declassifying some details of an intelligence program to respond to media reports about government counter-terrorism techniques.
“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 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.
The US National Security Agency (NSA) filed a criminal report with the US Department of Justice last week in relation to the leaks, US Office of the Director of National Intelligence spokesman Shawn Turner said in an e-mail on Saturday.
US President Barack Obama defended the counter-terrorism methods on Friday and said Americans need to “make some choices” in balancing privacy and security.
Late on Thursday, Clapper declassified some details of a program employed by the NSA that aims to obtain on an “ongoing, daily basis” the records of telephone companies’ customers’ calls. Clapper said that only a small fraction of the records collected ever get examined because most are unrelated to terrorism activities.
His statement and declassification on Saturday addressed the Internet scouring program, code-named PRISM, that allowed the NSA and FBI to tap directly into the servers of major US Internet companies. Like the telephone-records program, PRISM was approved by a judge in a secret court order. However, unlike that program, PRISM allowed the government to seize actual conversations.
Clapper said the program, authorized in the USA Patriot Act, has been in place since 2008 and “has proven vital to keeping the nation and our allies safe.”
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 US electronic communication service providers. It requires approval from a FISA Court judge and is conducted with the knowledge of the provider.
‧ The program seeks foreign intelligence information concerning foreign targets located outside the US.
‧ 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 cyberactivities or nuclear proliferation. The foreign target must be reasonably believed to be outside the US. It cannot intentionally target any US citizen or person known to be in the US
The Post and the Guardian named Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, AOL and Paltalk as companies whose data has been obtained.
All the companies have issued statements asserting that they are not voluntarily handing over user data and emphatically rejecting reports indicating that PRISM has opened a door for the NSA to tap directly on the companies’ data centers.
In his statement, Clapper appeared to support that claim by stressing that the government did not act unilaterally, but with court authority.
The Guardian reported on Saturday that it had obtained top-secret documents detailing an NSA tool, called Boundless Informant, that maps the information it collects from computer and telephone networks by country.
The paper said the documents show NSA collected almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March, which the paper says calls into question NSA statements that it cannot determine how many Americans may be accidentally included in its computer surveillance.
NSA spokesperson Judith Emmel said on Saturday that “current technology simply does not permit us to positively identify all of the persons or locations associated with a given communication.”
Obama on Friday echoed intelligence experts who predicted that potential attackers will find other, secretive ways to communicate now that they know that their telephone and Internet records may be targeted.
An al-Qaeda affiliated Web site on Saturday warned against using the Internet to discuss issues related to militant activities in three long articles on what it called “America’s greatest and unprecedented scandal of spying on its own citizens and people in other countries.”
“Caution: Oh brothers, it is a great danger revealing PRISM, the greatest American spying project,” one member wrote.
“A highly important caution for the Internet jihadis ... American intelligence gets information from Facebook and Google,” another wrote.
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