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Officials say Americans protected by Prism surveillance program
Question of the Day
Current and former officials say the now-declassified Prism Internet surveillance program — contrary to privacy advocates' fears — targets only foreigners, has been authorized by Congress, and is regularly vetted by the courts and independent auditors working for the Justice Department's inspector general.
"Prism is not a scandal. It's not even a collection program," said Stewart Baker, a lawyer who has held senior intelligence and homeland security posts in several Republican administrations.
Mr. Baker and others are pushing back as Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for Britain's Guardian newspaper who exposed the program, promised more "big" leaks, and a poll revealed that most Americans support the broad collection of domestic telephone data.
In a fact sheet released over the weekend, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper described Prism as "an internal government computer system used to facilitate the government's statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers under court supervision."
Congress added the authority in Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 2008 and it "has been widely known and publicly discussed since," Mr. Clapper said.
"They are following FISA. They are satisfying the [FISA court] judge, then they are getting the data from the [telecommunications] providers," Mr. Baker said of the National Security Agency, whose classified slide show about Prism was leaked last week.
In addition, the heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees have said the program does not infringe on privacy and has prevented terrorist attacks.
Mr. Clapper's fact sheet said that, to be targeted under section 702, a person must be "reasonably believed" to be a foreigner outside the United States and there must be an "appropriate and documented foreign intelligence purpose" for the surveillance such as preventing terrorist attacks or nuclear proliferation.
The law cannot be used to target Americans, and there are procedures in place to "minimize" — or redact — any Americans' communications that are accidentally or incidentally collected, according to the fact sheet.
"From everything I've seen, Prism just means that instead of faxing the information [to the NSA], it is sent electronically. It's just the efficient and smooth delivery of authorized foreign intelligence," Mr. Baker said.
His sanguine attitude appeared to be shared widely among Americans. A Pew Center poll reported that the majority back the NSA's broad collection of even domestic telephone records if it helps disrupt terrorist plots.
Pew researchers asked 1,004 Americans over the weekend whether it is "acceptable" for the NSA to access the telephone records of millions of Americans through secret court orders. Fifty-six percent agreed it is, and 41 percent called it "unacceptable."
The poll, which has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points, was first reported by Pew's media partner, The Washington Post.
The survey results suggest growing support for broad domestic surveillance since the last time news broke about the NSA's warrantless surveillance of telecommunications, at the end of 2005. A poll at that time found 51 percent backed and 47 percent opposed the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the precursor to Prism.
Mr. Baker, the former intelligence official, said the collection of "metadata" — the time and duration of calls, the phone numbers involved and the location of the participants — is a slightly more contentious matter than the Prism data, which focus only on foreigners.
"It raises some legitimate legal questions and some legitimate privacy issues," he said.
Officials have said the information is collected, but that the FISA court must approve any searches of the data, which are used to detect communications that foreign terrorists might have with people in the United States.
Mr. Baker said the intelligence agencies traditionally had gone to court to ask for permission to gather such data — "authorization first, then collection."
"But if you know you are going to need to do searches of this very large data set, why not collect it first, then get court approval for whatever searches you want to do?" he said. "The net effect is the same."
On Monday, Mr. Greenwald of The Guardian promised more revelations.
"We do have more big stories coming, without question," he told CNN.
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About the Author
Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...
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