The ongoing controversy over government surveillance exploded in the last 24 hours with the news that the Obama administration is still collecting phone-call data from millions of Americans, and the NSA and FBI use a program called PRISM that allows them to dig through user data from the top Internet companies. In an unusual move, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released two statements late on Thursday night in which he says he’ll declassify some details about the phone records program to help explain it to the American people, and defends both programs as “important and entirely legal.” He also has harsh words for the disgruntled officials who leaked the information to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He calls the leak “reprehensible” and says it “threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.”
In the first statement, Clapper addresses The Guardian’s disclosure of a top secret document ordering Verizon to turn over phone metadata, saying the article “omits key information regarding how a classified intelligence collection program is used to prevent terrorist attacks and the numerous safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties.” Most of the ten bullet points just emphasize that the program has been authorized by all branches of government, and doesn’t allow agents to listen in on our phone calls. One offers a little more information on how the phone metadata is used:
By order of the FISC, the Government is prohibited from indiscriminately sifting through the telephony metadata acquired under the program. All information that is acquired under this program is subject to strict, court-imposed restrictions on review and handling. 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. Only specially cleared counterterrorism personnel specifically trained in the Court-approved procedures may even access the records.
The second statement is much shorter and confirms the existence of the PRISM program without using that name. Clapper says the articles that uncovered the program “contain numerous inaccuracies” and assures Americans that there are procedures in place “to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons.” He doesn’t offer any more specifics on either topic.
While the original report from the Post said the tech companies involved in PRISM — Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple — knowingly allowed the government to access their data, most issued statements denying that they provided the government direct access to their servers. Apple added, “We have never heard of prism.” An updated version of the Post’s story concedes that the slide show provided to the paper might have been misleading. “It is possible that the conflict between the PRISM slides and the company spokesmen is the result of imprecision on the part of the NSA author.”
Aside from concerns about Obama’s not-quite Orwellian behavior, the leaks could add fuel to the ongoing debate about how much information we turn over to tech companies, and how they use that data. By chance, on Thursday night President Obama was in Silicon Valley for some fundraisers and on Friday he’ll head to Southern California to complain to Chinese President Xi Jinping about alleged attacks by Chinese hackers. We bet he’s having some interesting conversations.