* Data on millions of Verizon customers targeted
* Secret three-month court order published online
* Privacy advocates say surveillance is overreach
* Key U.S. lawmakers support data collection effort
By Mark Hosenball and John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, June 6 The debate over whether the
U.S. government is violating citizens' privacy rights while
trying to protect them from terrorism escalated dramatically on
Thursday amid reports that authorities have collected data on
millions of phone users and tapped into servers at nine internet
The White House spent much of the day defending the National
Security Agency's secret collection of telephone records from
millions of Americans as a "critical tool" for preventing
attacks, as critics called the program - first reported by
Britain's Guardian newspaper - a heavy-handed move that raised
new questions about the extent of the U.S. government's spying
on its citizens.
At day's end, the flap over the NSA's mining of data from
customers of a subsidiary of Verizon Communications was
overtaken by a Washington Post report that described an even
more aggressive program of government surveillance.
The Post reported that the NSA and the FBI have been tapping
"directly" into the central servers of leading U.S. internet
companies to gain access to emails, photographs, audio, video,
documents, connection logs and other information that enable
analysts to track a person's movements and contacts over time.
Some of the companies named in the article - Google, Apple,
Yahoo and Facebook - immediately denied that the government had
"direct access" to their central servers. Microsoft said it does
not voluntarily participate in any government data collection
and only complies "with orders for requests about specific
accounts or identifiers."
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said
the report contained "numerous inaccuracies."
Washington Post spokeswoman Kristine Coratti said the paper
stood by its report, which was based on an NSA document that it
Taken together, the reports suggested that U.S. domestic
surveillance, long acknowledged to have become more prevalent
since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was far more extensive than
the public knew.
The Post said that the secret program involving the internet
companies, code-named PRISM and established under Republican
President George W. Bush in 2007, had seen "exponential growth"
during the past several years under Democratic President Barack
The Post said an NSA report had found that the agency
"increasingly relies on PRISM" as its leading source of raw
material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.
Technology companies taking part in the program, the Post
said, include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL,
Skype, YouTube and Apple.
Clapper indicated that Thursday's reports were indeed
significant but disputed the notion that government agents could
use such data without a specific investigative purpose in mind.
He also said the program does not allow the government to listen
in on anyone's phone calls.
"The unauthorized disclosure of information about this
important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks
important protections for the security of Americans," he said in
FUEL FOR CRITICS
The reports on Thursday drew attention to U.S. authorities'
use of a secret federal court, the U.S. Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Court, which reviews and approves investigators'
requests to conduct extraordinary surveillance in national
The NSA surveillance programs are among thousands of
operations approved by the court in the years since the 9/11
attacks. Under federal law, Congress is briefed about the
For civil libertarians and other critics of expanded secret
surveillance, Thursday's revelations amounted to a reminder of
how the 9/11 attacks increased the government's reach into
Americans' daily lives.
"These revelations are a reminder that Congress has given
the executive branch far too much power to invade individual
privacy (and) that existing civil liberties safeguards are
grossly inadequate," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director
of the American Civil Liberties Union.
As Obama arrived in California late on Thursday for a summit
with China's new president, Xi Jinping, it was clear that
administration officials were sensitive to such criticism.
A senior administration official emphasized that although
the activities of people in the United States are included in
the data being amassed by the government, the surveillance
programs may target for investigation only non-Americans living
outside the country.
The surveillance program "was recently reauthorized by
Congress after extensive hearings and debate," the official
said. "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
'IT'S CALLED PROTECTING AMERICA'
Before the Post's report on the internet companies was
published, leading members of Congress - who routinely are
briefed by the NSA on secret surveillance programs, and were
again on Thursday - defended the agency's efforts to build a
database of phone records for use in investigations. They said
the program had been going on for seven years.
Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House of
Representatives Intelligence Committee, said the surveillance
effort had stopped a "significant" attack plot within the United
States, but did not give details.
"It's called protecting America," added Senator Dianne
Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate
But there also was a diverse group of Republicans and
Democrats - some who knew about the program and its scope,
others who apparently did not - who blasted the gathering of
such a huge database of details about Americans' phone habits as
an unwarranted intrusion.
"The United States should not be accumulating phone records
on tens of millions of innocent Americans. That is not what
democracy is about. That is not what freedom is about," said
Senator Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont.
Conservative Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky called
the program "an astounding assault on the Constitution" and said
the Obama administration "had sunk to a new low."
The Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA's monitoring
of Americans includes customer records from AT&T Inc and
Sprint Nextel Corp in addition to Verizon, as well as
emails and Web searches. The agency also has cataloged
credit-card transactions, the Journal said.
A NEW CONTROVERSY
For an administration that has promoted an activist
government as a helper and protector of Americans, the flap over
the NSA's surveillance became a new battle front.
Obama's White House already was under fire on another matter
involving the delicate balance between security and privacy: its
search of the telephone records of Associated Press journalists
and the emails and phone records of a Fox News reporter as part
of an inquiry into leaked government information.
And in the coming days, it's also likely that the details of
the Guardian and Post reports will be sifted for clues into
other U.S. surveillance activities, and who might have leaked
them despite the risk of federal charges.
The Post story said part of its knowledge about the NSA
programs came from a "career intelligence officer" who cited
"firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their
There also was a curious twist to the Post story, which was
written by Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras.
Gellman is a longtime Post reporter; Poitras is a
documentary filmmaker who has been working on a film about
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, the website known for
publishing secret government documents. Last year, Poitras made
a documentary on Bill Binney, a former code-breaker at the NSA
who became a whistleblowing critic of the agency's surveillance
of U.S. citizens.