Obama Administration On PRISM Program: 'Only Non-U.S. Persons Outside The U.S. Are Targeted' (UPDATE)

06/06/2013 09:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2013
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

WASHINGTON -- A massive email surveillance program run by the National Security Agency is not directed at Americans and is legally permissible and highly useful for anti-terror operation, a senior administration official said in a statement Thursday night.

The statement, provided on condition of anonymity, came hours after news outlets revealed the existence of the PRISM program, which provides the NSA with access to records of America’s largest Internet companies. The statement is an implicit confirmation of the program’s existence. It also is the first defense of the massive surveillance effort that, until Thursday evening, the public did not know existed.

The Guardian and Washington Post articles refer to collection of communications pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This law does not allow the targeting of any U.S. citizen or of any person located within the United States.

The program is subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Executive Branch, and Congress. It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, 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.

This program was recently reauthorized by Congress after extensive hearings and debate.

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.

The Government may only use Section 702 to acquire foreign intelligence information, which is specifically, and narrowly, defined in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This requirement applies across the board, regardless of the nationality of the target.

Coming on the heels of revelations that the NSA had obtained phone call data from several of the biggest providers (as well as, reportedly, credit card information) it remains to be seen if the White House explanation will suffice. Top senators were quick to defend the NSA’s phone surveillance program on Thursday. But others expressed concern, if not dismay, that it violated privacy rights.

This was before news of PRISM. It seems likely that lawmakers who reauthorized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will say that they never anticipated that it would never be used to collect search histories, email contents or live chat transcripts.

The administration, it seems, recognizes that it has to do more on the public relations front. On Thursday evening, the White House put out an advisory that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will hold a media briefing in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Saturday following President Barack Obama's meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The briefing may be geared towards addressing U.S.-Chinese relations. But the surveillance program revelations are bound to come up as well.

UPDATE: 10:25 p.m. -- James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, has released his first on-the-record statement about the PRISM program, calling the disclosure of it “reprehensible” and insisting that Americans aren’t targeted. The full statement is below.

The Guardian and The Washington Post articles refer to collection of communications pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They contain numerous inaccuracies.

Section 702 is a provision of FISA that is designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States. It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States.

Activities authorized by Section 702 are subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Executive Branch, and Congress. They involve extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, 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.

Section 702 was recently reauthorized by Congress after extensive hearings and debate.

Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.

The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.

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