James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, spoke up late Thursday to denounce two seemingly-coordinated leaks that revealed wide-spread government data collection of Verizon phone logs, as well as an internet-based program known as "PRISM" that’s been collecting digital exchanges abroad.
“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,” Clapper said. “I believe it is important for the American people to understand the limits of this targeted counterterrorism program and the principles that govern its use."
The leaks have sparked public outrage among civil liberties watchdogs and conservative libertarians, who worry that the ever-delicate scale between safety and liberty has lost its balance. Most recently, leaks about the PRISM program allege relationships between United States intelligence officials and nine U.S. companies, including “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” The documents claim the government has been reviewing emails, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers and video conferencing of foreigners abroad.
“It cannot be used to target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States,” Clapper stresses, though critics claim that any American who corresponds with a targeted individual abroad would be swept up into the program. “Information collected under this program is among the most important and vulnerable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky), one of the fiercest critics of the PATRIOT Act and other such programs, has vowed to introduce legislation to ensure that Fourth Amendment rights protecting against unreasonable search and seizure be applied to government acquisitions of phone records.
But even liberals have joined the fray, many frustrated at having elected a congressional scholar who criticized and vowed to scale-back nearly identical Bush-era programs during the 2008 election, only to uphold many of them after taking office. The lure of nearly limitless data is tempting to any administration — a virtual treasure trove of potential terror plots hidden amongst the the Bieber lyrics cat videos.
Clapper continued to stress that the Verizon program was conducted under authority granted by Congress under the post-9/11 PATRIOT Act, which was renewed in 2006 and again in 2011, as well as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. He also noted that the "metadata" collected by the government cannot be used to access phone logs — only the time, place, location, duration, and recipient of customer calls.
He noted that there had been “numerous inaccuracies” in media reports, though declined to specify what those were.
“When law-abiding Americans make phones calls,” said a frustrated Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), “who they call, when they call and where they call from is private information. As a result of the disclosures that came to light today, now we’re going to have a real debate in Congress and the country that’s long overdue.” Wyden voted to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act in 2006, but voted against it in 2011.
Wyden, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was one of only a handful of senators with classified knowledge of the PRISM program. Bound from speaking openly, he and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) made some then-cryptic comments during a floor debate when lawmakers were making changes to FISA late last year, expressing concern for a “loophole” that could allow for “warrantless searches for Americans’ communications.”
Representatives from many of the American companies outlined in the leaked documents have denied any cooperation with the government beyond what is absolutely required by law. An internal Verizon email circulated to employees notes, “the law authorizes the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances, and if Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply.”
The drama comes at a challenging time for President Obama, whose legislative priorities have been derailed by a scandal-filled month in the White House. He is meeting this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a now comical attempt to get the Chinese government to halt its cyberattack and spying programs.