While the revelation of two ultra-secret government surveillance programs on Thursday raised outrage from some congressional lawmakers and admonitions for calm from others, Americans whose phone records are ostensibly being compiled by the National Security Agency were left mostly in the dark about who is gathering what information on them and how.
Some subscribers to telecommunications provider Verizon might have been tempted to ask “Can you hear me now?” after a classified document was published in British newspaper The Guardian detailing a program under which a division of the company was ordered to hand over records to the NSA. Later in the day, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Dianne Feinstein said the program, which has been going on since at least 2009 she said, has foiled an unspecified number of terrorist attacks.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell discusses the political ramifications of the government's collecting records from telephone calls made in the U.S. and tapping into servers to monitor video, audio and text conversations.
A second program, codenamed PRISM, was revealed later in the day, and first reported on by the Washington Post and The Guardian. Under the program, U.S. intelligence agencies have been given access to files maintained by some of the country’s top Internet companies, including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Apple, according to the reports. Those companies denied providing special government access to their systems when contacted by NBC News.
With civil libertarians and other privacy-conscious Americans who don’t want their calls to mom recorded in a database up in arms, there still remain many unanswered questions about what records are kept, how they’re obtained, and how specifically the information might have been used to foil attacks on the United States and its citizens. Here’s what we know so far:
Who is listening to my calls?
At the moment, according to government officials, no one’s calls are being listened to under the program described in the document published by The Guardian on Thursday. Rather, the program collects “telephony metadata,” an obtuse phrasing that means when you call to order a pizza, the government may record your number, the number of the pizzeria, the location of the two numbers, and the time of the call. But since they don’t record the content of the call, according to government officials, they won’t know you ordered pepperoni.
“The program does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s phone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement released on Thursday night.
Who’s reading my emails?
According to the Washington Post, Internet companies including Google and Facebook are denying involvement in National Security Agency programs, named PRISM and BLARNEY, which allow the government to look at archived data and information as it is being transmitted. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.
Sources confirmed to NBC News the existence of a secret government program called PRISM on Thursday, which they said allows intelligence agencies to peek into the servers of top tech companies and look at emails, video, photos, and other types of documents. According to intelligence officials, the program run by the NSA and Federal Bureau of Investigation engages in “data collection” as opposed to “data mining,” though how that distinction matters to a teen with a bunch of beer pong photos on Facebook remained foggy. Companies allegedly involved in the program denied giving the government “direct access” to their servers.
“We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully,” Google said in a statement echoed in substance by other companies named in connection with PRISM. “From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data.”
What gives the government the power for these programs?
The phone and Internet data-collection programs seem to be the first started under the Patriot Act, which was passed in 2001. The act, which was renewed in 2006 and 2011, granted expanded surveillance powers in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11. The order requesting records from Verizon relied on the “business records” section of the Patriot Act.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court were passed and established in 1978. FISA was passed originally to place limits on electronic intelligence gathering in the U.S. The law was revised by an addition in 2008 that changed some of the rules regarding surveillance in terrorism cases. The changes also granted immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in a wiretapping program carried out under the Bush administration.
The enormous collection of U.S. telephones calls and their durations have been housed in National Security Agency computers for the past seven years. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.
Who keeps an eye on the surveillance programs?
Multiple government officials said that the program is subject to a “robust” set of legal constraints that monitor actions taken under FISA, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The government submitted to the court 1,789 applications requesting authority to carry out electronic snooping in 2012, according to an April 2013 letter from Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. One of those applications was withdrawn by the government and 40 proposed orders were modified, according to the letter, but otherwise they were all approved in court.
Members of Congress were informed repeatedly about the phone records program, Congressional leaders and intelligence officials said on Thursday. Clapper said in his statement that members of Congress have been “fully and repeatedly briefed” on the “sensitive intelligence collection operation” of which the program is a part. “The classified program has been authorized by all three branches of the government.”
In a 2008 statement, the then-campaigning Obama said that the bill revising FISA “makes it clear to any president or telecommunications company that no law supersedes the authority of the FISA court.”
The court’s responsibility, Obama said at the time, is to “watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people.”
The FISA court reviews the phone records program every three months, Clapper said.
What was the government looking for in all those calls?
The government cast a wide net because they wanted to be able to perform searches to see if a person had been in touch with people overseas thought to be connected to terrorist activities, Clapper said in his statement.
“The collection is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism-related communications,” Clapper said in the statement in which he also slammed the leak that lead to the Guardian report. “Acquiring this information allows us to make connections related to terrorist activities over time. The FISA court specifically approved this method of collection as lawful, subject to stringent restrictions.”
“By order of the FISC, the government is prohibited from indiscriminately shifting through the telephony metadata acquired under the program. All information that is acquired under this program is subject to strict, court-imposed restrictions on review and handling,” Clapper said. “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 organization. Only specifically cleared counterterrorism personnel specifically trained in the court-approved procedures may even access the records.”