President Barack Obama’s administration on Thursday defended a newly disclosed National Security Agency program that gathers telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers, authorized under a secret court order.
In an unusual move, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, responded to a newspaper report about the program by declassifying certain aspects of the law to explain to the public the limitations of the program. He said it could only be used if there is “a reasonable suspicion” of a connection with a foreign terrorist organization.
“The highest priority of the intelligence community is to work within the constraints of law to collect, analyze and understand information related to potential threats to our national security,” he said in a statement late Thursday.
On Capitol Hill, key lawmakers from both parties said they have known about the program for years, while others said they were never informed of the scope of the collection, which appeared to impact Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing.
“It was like, oh God, not one more thing,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., told Attorney General Eric Holder during an unrelated Appropriations Committee meeting. “And not one more thing where we’re trying to protect America, and then it looks like we’re spying on America.”
The program, first reported Wednesday by the Guardian newspaper in London, requires Verizon to provide the NSA, an intelligence agency within the Department of Defense, with daily information on calls by its customers both in the United States and from foreign locations into the United States. The information includes numbers dialed and received and lengths of calls, but not the content of the calls.
A former senior NSA official said the database is more valuable than the content of communications because it allows the NSA to construct “maps” of an individual’s daily movements, social connections, travel habits and other personal information.
“It gets you a map over time. I get to map movements, connections, communities of interest,” said Thomas Drake, who was charged in 2010 with violating the Espionage Act for leaking information on waste, abuse and fraud at the NSA to a journalist. All of the charges were eventually dropped. The NSA also “can easily associate” a number with an identity, he said in an interview.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the records had stopped a domestic terrorism plot on American soil in the last few years.
Clapper said that the “unauthorized disclosure of a top secret U.S. court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.”
Also Thursday, the Washington Post and the Guardian reported that the NSA and the FBI have been secretly accessing the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies in a highly classified program called PRISM.
Established in 2007 and expanded ever since, the program accesses audio, video, photographs, emails and other data “that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time,” the newspaper said.
Clapper said the articles contain numerous inaccuracies, though he did not say what they are, and reiterated that the law does not allow the targeting of any U.S. citizen or of any person located within the United States.
“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,” he said.
But civil liberty groups immediately criticized the collection of information.
“The stories published over the last two days make clear that the NSA – part of the military – now has direct access to every corner of Americans’ digital lives,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said. “Unchecked government surveillance presents a grave threat to democratic freedoms. These revelations are a reminder that Congress has given the executive branch far too much power to invade individual privacy, that existing civil liberties safeguards are grossly inadequate, and that powers exercised entirely in secret, without public accountability of any kind, will certainly be abused.”
The government began collecting telephone records after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Though civil rights groups had long suspected the practice continued, there had been no evidence.
The order for the phone records falls under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the government to make broad demands on telephone providers for information about calls.
As a senator, Obama had supported changes to the Patriot Act that would have required the government to convince a judge that the records they are seeking have some connection to a suspected terrorist or spy. But as president, he has signed its re-authorization.
“In his first inaugural address, President Obama stated that, ‘as for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,’” said Stephen B. Wicker, a Cornell University professor and expert on digital security. “He has apparently changed his mind.”
Holder, previously scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill, said that the Obama administration has kept Congress fully informed about the program and that he would be willing to provide more details in a closed hearing.
In a show of bipartisan unity, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the committee’s top Republican, told reporters that Congress was aware of the surveillance program.
“As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years,” Feinstein said. “Therefore, it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress.”
Their committee sent letters to senators about the program in 2010 and 2011, informing them that it was on the verge of renewal and that they could review information about it on a classified basis.
“Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this and to my knowledge we’ve not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information,” Chambliss said.
Still, the program has its share of critics on Capitol Hill.
“The United States should not be accumulating phone records on tens of millions of innocent Americans,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who voted against the Patriot Act when it was first enacted in 2001 and when it was reauthorized in 2006 and 2011.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said that “after the revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political dissidents and the Justice Department seized reporters’ phone records, it would appear that this administration has now sunk to a new low.”
The order was signed by a judge from the secret court that oversees domestic surveillance, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for a three-month period ending on July 19. Congress established the court, comprised of 11 federal judges, in 1978.
The court appears to be a rubberstamp for the administration, according to the court’s own records. It received 1,789 applications to conduct electronic surveillance during 2012, according to the court’s most recent public report. It did not deny any applications.
The order is one of the most highly classified U.S. government documents ever to become public without authorization, making a Justice Department leak investigation certain.
Michael Doyle and Jonathan S. Landay of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.