The Obama administration late Thursday defended its practice of obtaining records from major Internet companies, saying they don’t use the “important and valuable” counterterrorism tool to target Americans. Officials also declassified information justifying the widespread collection of U.S. phone data.
“Section 702 is a provision of FISA that is designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said of the top-secret Internet monitoring. “It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States.”
Clapper added, “Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats. The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.”
The Washington Post and The Guardian reported Thursday that the National Security Agency and FBI since 2007 have secretly accessed the central servers for major U.S. Internet companies, obtaining private data to track an individual’s conversations and whereabouts.
According to the reports, the classified PRISM program allows security officials to access emails and photographs, among other information, and accounts for roughly 1 in 7 NSA security reports. Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple allow intelligence officials to access their servers.
The revelation came on the same day the White House acknowledged another effort to collect the phone records of millions of Americans. Top lawmakers conceded that Verizon had in fact provided information about millions of its U.S. customers to the NSA — and analysts say that other telecommunications providers are almost certainly involved.
Clapper also declassified major details of the phone-records program.
“The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization,” he insisted. “Only specially cleared counterterrorism personnel specifically trained in the Court-approved procedures may even access the records.”
Clapper said “only a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed because the vast majority of the data is not responsive to any terrorism-related query.”
Such answers did little to appease civil liberty groups, which accused Obama of expanding the very security policies he once decried as a presidential candidate.