The US government said late Thursday that it is authorised to collect intelligence information of non-U.S. persons located outside the country, in the wake of news reports on the government's surveillance programs.
The two newspaper reports refer to the collection of communications under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is designed "to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States," said James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, in a statement.
The section cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the country, he added. There are court approved procedures to minimise the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons, Clapper said.
The U.S. National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation have real-time access to servers of Internet services companies like Google and Facebook to collect content for surveillance, the Guardian and Washington Post reported on Thursday, with a powerful follow up today.
Stating that the information collected under the program is used to protect the U.S. from a variety of threats, Clapper criticised the unauthorised disclosure about the program as "reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans."
The Guardian had earlier also published the copy of a secret April 25 order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington, D.C., which required Verizon to produce call records or "telephony metadata" on an ongoing daily basis until expiry of the authorisation on July 19.
The metadata included communications routing information such as session-identifying information, trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call, according to the document. The metadata collected did not, however, include the content of communications, or the name, address, and financial information of the customer.
The program does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's phone calls, and the information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber, Clapper said in a separate statement on Thursday, while confirming the authenticity of the order published by the British newspaper. The judicial order is used to support a sensitive intelligence collection operation, on which members of the U.S. Congress have been fully and repeatedly briefed,
It is not that intelligence officials are allowed to sift indiscriminately through the telephony metadata provided. "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 organisation," he added.
The intelligence official said he was providing the information, including some that was declassified for the purpose, because it is "important for the American people to understand the limits of this targeted counterterrorism program and the principles that govern its use."
"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," Clapper said.