The US Director of National Intelligence has admitted that the National Security Agency has been gathering folks' mobile phone data and internet activities - but claims the public has got the American government’s intentions all wrong.
James Clapper said in a statement that the leaked court document detailing the NSA's programme of storing information on millions of phone calls was outed by The Guardian in a “misleading” way.
“The article omits key information regarding how a classified intelligence collection programme is used to prevent terrorist attacks and the numerous safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties,” he claimed.
Clapper insisted that the “targeted counterterrorism” system was misunderstood, and said he had ordered certain information in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) - which authorises the secretive agency's monitoring of communications - to be declassified to explain it.
According to his statement, the programme, which has been approved by all three branches of the US government, “does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s phone calls” and the information gathered “does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber”.
Instead, intelligence agencies are collecting a “broad scope” of information so as not to limit their ability to hunt for terrorists and they are not able to “indiscriminately sift” through the information, but instead need to follow “strict, court-imposed restrictions on review and handling”.
“Only specially cleared counterterrorism personnel specifically trained in the court-approved procedures may even access the records,” he said.
He also said that discussing classified programmes like this one changed the behaviour of the nation’s adversaries and made it “more difficult for us to understand their intentions”.
“The unauthorised disclosure of a top-secret US court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation,” he warned.
And in a second, much shorter statement that addresses revelations about the NSA's enormous PRISM project - which apparently gives the agency access to email, chat logs, any stored documents, VoIP traffic, file transfers and social networking data - Clapper once again claimed that articles in The Guardian and the Washington Post had “numerous inaccuracies”.
His comments came as it was further claimed that the UK's communications-eavesdropping and intelligence-gathering nerve centre GCHQ has access to the PRISM system and its data.
He said that the articles referred to surveillance operations authorised under Section 702 of the FISA, which concerned “non-US persons outside the United States”.
“It cannot be used to intentionally target any US citizen, any other US person, or anyone located within the United States,” he assured the American people.
“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 unauthorised disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans,” he reiterated.
Internet firms including Google, Facebook and Apple have denied giving the government unrestricted direct access to their servers, however they’ve all talked about disclosing data “in accordance with the law”.
According to the Washington Post’s sources, nine internet firms were involved in the data-gobbling programme, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. ®