U.S. programs collecting telephone and Internet data are lawful efforts that were disclosed to lawmakers and have been distorted in the media, according to James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence.
The activities are “conducted under authorities widely known and discussed, and fully debated and authorized by Congress,” Clapper said in a statement released in Washington yesterday. “Their purpose is to obtain foreign intelligence information, including information necessary to thwart terrorist and cyber-attacks against the United States and its allies.”
The Internet program, code-named PRISM, can’t be used to intentionally target U.S. citizens or anyone known to be in the U.S., according to a declassified summary of the program also released yesterday. Companies provide access to data under court approval and with knowledge of the provider, the summary said.
A criminal investigation of leaks about the programs is mandatory and inevitable, given the magnitude and severity, as well as inquiries into less damaging breaches, said a U.S. official briefed on the issue, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence issues. The Department of Justice declines to comment on any specific referral, spokesman Andrew Ames said in an e-mail.
The revelation of the programs in the Washington Post (WPO) and U.K.-based Guardian newspaper reignited a debate over the proper balance between civil liberties and security that has flared repeatedly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Yet the public backing the Obama administration received from leaders of Congress in the aftermath of the disclosures makes it unlikely lawmakers will act to limit the surveillance.
Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Yahoo! Inc., Google Inc. (GOOG), Facebook Inc. (FB), and Apple Inc. (AAPL) were among the technology providers involved in the program, the newspapers reported. The companies issued statements either denying that they had granted the government access to their servers or saying that they were unaware of the program.
“In a rush to publish, media outlets have not given the full context -- including the extent to which these programs are overseen by all three branches of government -- to these effective tools,” Clapper said.
The programs have provided information that has helped impede the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and provided intelligence about possible computer network attacks, according to the summary.
The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees said this week that they received regular briefings on the programs and support them.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, called the surveillance “an astounding assault” on the U.S. Constitution.
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