WASHINGTON The federal government has been secretly gathering information from the nation’s largest Internet companies – including Google, Facebook and, most recently, Apple – going back nearly six years, according to documents that emerged Thursday. A senior government official confirmed the program but said it targeted only foreigners abroad.
The data provided could include email, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, videoconferencing and logins, according to an apparently highly classified document describing the National Security Agency program called PRISM.
The program is authorized under law and was recently reauthorized by Congress, the official said.
“The law does not allow the targeting of any U.S. citizen or of any person located within the United States,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss a highly classified program. “Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”
Several of the Internet companies issued statements strongly denying knowledge of or participation in the program.
But the disclosure of the documents by U.S. and British newspapers came just hours after government officials acknowledged a separate seven-year effort to sweep up records of telephone calls inside the United States.
Together, the disclosures opened an extraordinary window into the growth of government surveillance that began under the Bush administration and has clearly been embraced and even expanded under the Obama administration.
Both revelations were reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, while The Washington Post simultaneously reported the Internet company tapping. The Post said a disenchanted intelligence official had provided it with the documents to expose government overreach.
The leaks about the programs brought a sharp response from James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. In an unusual statement late Thursday, Clapper called disclosure of the Internet surveillance program “reprehensible” and said the leak about the phone record collecting could cause long-lasting and irreversible harm to the nation’s ability to respond to threats.
Clapper said news reports about the programs contained inaccuracies and omitted key information. He declassified some details about the authority used in the phone records program because he said Americans must know the program’s limits. Those details included that a special national security court reviews the program every 90 days and that the court prohibits the government from indiscriminately sifting through phone data. Queries are only allowed when facts support reasonable suspicion, Clapper said.
Before the disclosure of the alleged Internet company surveillance program late Thursday, the White House and congressional leaders defended the phone program, saying it was legal and necessary for national security.
Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the kind of surveillance at issue “has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats.”
The Guardian and The Post posted several slides from a 41-page presentation about the Internet program that listed the companies involved – including Yahoo, Microsoft, Paytalk, AOL, Skype and YouTube – the dates they joined the program, and the types of information collected.
The administration and lawmakers who supported the telephone records program emphasized that all three branches of government had signed off on it. But Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union denounced the surveillance as an infringement of fundamental individual liberties. “A pox on all the three houses of government,” he said. “On Congress, for legislating such powers, on the FISA court for being such a paper tiger and rubber stamp, and on the Obama administration for not being true to its values.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, claimed the program helped stop a significant domestic terrorist attack in the United States in the past few years. He gave no details.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Americans have no cause for concern. “If you’re not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said. The Associated Press contributed.
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