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 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 Obama defended the counterterrorism methods.
Late Thursday, Clapper declassified some details of a phone-records collection program employed by the National Security Agency.
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.
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 outside the United States.
• 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.
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 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 U.S. 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 spokeswoman Judith Emmel said Saturday that "current technology simply does not permit us to positively identify all of the persons or locations associated with a given communication." She said it may be possible to determine that a communication "traversed a particular path within the Internet," but added that "it is harder to know the ultimate source or destination, or more particularly the identity of the person represented by the TO:, FROM: or CC: field of an e-mail address or the abstraction of an IP address."
Q&A on domestic spying / A13