The National Security Agency secretly has hacked into the main communications links connecting massive data centers maintained overseas by Internet giants Yahoo and Google, the Washington Post reports, citing classified documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The top-secret project, code-named MUSCULAR, allows the agency to "collect at will" from the user accounts of hundreds of millions of people, including Americans, the newspaper reported on Wednesday.
The Washington Post said that according to a top-secret Jan. 9, 2013, accounting document, the NSA's acquisitions directorate sends millions of records from Yahoo and Google internal networks to data storage facilities at the agency's headquarters in Ft. Meade, Md. The records range from metadata - which record the identities of email senders and receivers and the dates of their messages - to video, audio and text content.
The project, according to the newspaper, is operated jointly by the NSA and its British equivalent, General Communications Headquarters, and is striking because it is different from a separate collection program known as PRISM that accesses Google and Yahoo user accounts through court orders.
The report is the latest in an avalanche of disclosures based on documents leaked to news organizations by Snowden. They include the court-approved accumulation by the NSA of the data from daily telephone calls of millions of Americans as part of the government's efforts to root out terrorists, and the bugging of the telephones of 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The revelations have ignited anger on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to bruised relations with key U.S. allies - even though some contribute to NSA operations even as they steal U.S. secrets - the reports have triggered a Senate review of all U.S. intelligence-gathering programs and prompted lawmakers to introduce legislation to impose new restrictions on the agency's data-mining operations.
The White House refused to comment on the Washington Post report, referring all questions to embattled NSA Director Keith Alexander.
Alexander denied shortly after the Washington Post report was posted on-line that the agency had hacked into the communications links between Google and Yahoo data centers abroad.
"That never happened," Alexander said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. "In fact, there was this allegation last June that NSA was tapping into the servers of Yahoo or Google or our industry reps. That is factually incorrect."
He pointed out that Google, Yahoo and other Internet service providers are required to cooperate with NSA counter-terrorism efforts by court order.
"These are specific requirements that come from a court order. This is not NSA breaking into any databases," said Alexander, an Army general. "It would be illegal for us to do that. And so I don’t know what the report is, but I can tell you factually we do not have access to Google servers, Yahoo servers. We go through a court order. We issue that court order to them through the FBI."
The new report came a day after Alexander, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, denied news reports that the NSA had collected the daily communications data from tens of millions of European citizens.
In a related development, senior U.S. and German national security officials met at the White House to discuss U.S. surveillance operations.
"Today’s discussions were an opportunity to hear from one another and jointly determine how the dialogue can best proceed in order to provide the necessary assurance and strengthen our cooperation," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
The U.S. side was represented by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco, Director of National Security James Clapper and other U.S. officials. The German delegation was led by Merkel's national security adviser Christoph Heusgen and German Chancellery Intelligence Coordinator Gunter Heiss.