The director of national intelligence late Thursday night issued statements asserting that recent media reports about federal surveillance of U.S. residents contained inaccuracies and he released previously classified information to demonstrate that the monitoring is legal.
DNI James Clapper's pronouncements were triggered by reports from The Guardian and The Washington Post that the National Security Agency has been and continues to secretly search U.S. residents' phone records and private online activities for signs of terrorist activity.
"In order to provide a more thorough understanding of the [phone] program, I have directed that certain information related to the 'business records' provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act be declassified and immediately released to the public," Clapper stated, referring to a reported court order authorizing the collection of data about Verizon calls made by millions of Americans.
He did not provide details on the alleged Web surfing surveillance.
The phone record sweep "is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism-related communications," Clapper said.
Discussing the call surveillance effort “will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions,” he added.
The information gathered "does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber,” Clapper stated. The type of information obtained is so-called metadata describing the calls, such as phone numbers dialed and conversation durations.
Clapper said the government is barred from "indiscriminately sifting through the telephony metadata” and that information is probed "when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts,” that the query involves a foreign terrorist organization.
Only "a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed" because most are not relevant to any terrorism-related query, he added.
The court reassesses the program every three months.
The monitoring of Americans by NSA -- an intelligence agency within the Defense Department -- has divided Democrats in Congress.
On Thursday afternoon, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he had pressed for more oversight and transparency in the way the government conducts electronic surveillance. "I have consistently voted against extending certain [provisions] because of a lack of sufficient oversight and privacy protections,” he said in a statement.
But fellow Democrat and Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a joint statement with top committee Republican Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., that phone record tracing should go on for the sake of public safety.
“The intelligence community has successfully used FISA authorities to identify terrorists and those with whom they communicate, and this intelligence has helped protect the nation," the statement read. "The threat from terrorism remains very real and these lawful intelligence activities must continue, with the careful oversight of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.”
Clapper later on Thursday said the Internet spying programs described by the press “contain numerous inaccuracies” but did not go into specifics.
He said NSA’s monitoring of such intelligence is not secret, but rather overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the executive branch and lawmakers. Procedures are in place to make sure "only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted" and to minimize the collection, retention and distribution of information about American residents that are "incidentally acquired," he added.