Ina Fried

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U.S. Government Offers First Concrete Details on PRISM, Confirming Existence but Arguing It Is Misunderstood

The U.S. government on Saturday offered up the first detailed explanation of its controversial PRISM data collection system.

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PRISM, the government said, “is not an undisclosed collection or data mining program.”

“It is 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, as authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” the government said in a just-published “fact sheet.”

The government statement also said it does not unilaterally collect information but does so only with specific permission of the secret courts created to oversee requests under FISA.

“The Government cannot target anyone under the court-approved procedures for Section 702 collection unless there is an appropriate, and documented, foreign intelligence purpose for the acquisition (such as for the prevention of terrorism, hostile cyber activities, or nuclear proliferation) and the foreign target is reasonably believed to be outside the United States,” the fact sheet states. “We cannot target even foreign persons overseas without a valid foreign intelligence purpose.”

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said he was declassifying certain details around the program in order to clear up misconceptions.

Clapper again defended the information gathering techniques as both lawful and necessary and insisted that this week’s reports “have not given the full context.”

Clapper essentially confirmed reports in the Guardian and the Washington Post, but said that the news articles failed to detail “the extent to which these programs are overseen by all three branches of government.”

Clapper also defended the laws that allow for such collection and the need for secrecy around just what is being gathered and the means by which it is obtained.

The defense comes even as details continue to spill out on both the scope and magnitude of the NSA’s monitoring of the Web and telecommunications systems.

Here’s Clapper’s statement;the accompanying fact sheet is embedded below:

Over the last week we have seen reckless disclosures of intelligence community measures used to keep Americans safe. In a rush to publish, media outlets have not given the full context–including the extent to which these programs are overseen by all three branches of government–to these effective tools.

In particular, the surveillance activities published in The Guardian and The Washington Post are lawful and conducted under authorities widely known and discussed, and fully debated and authorized by Congress. Their purpose is to obtain foreign intelligence information, including information necessary to thwart terrorist and cyber attacks against the United States and its allies.

Our ability to discuss these activities is limited by our need to protect intelligence sources and methods. Disclosing information about the specific methods the government uses to collect communications can obviously give our enemies a “playbook” of how to avoid detection. Nonetheless, Section 702 has proven vital to keeping the nation and our allies safe. It continues to be one of our most important tools for the protection of the nation’s security.

However, there are significant misimpressions that have resulted from the recent articles. Not all the inaccuracies can be corrected without further revealing classified information. I have, however, declassified for release the attached details about the recent unauthorized disclosures in hope that it will help dispel some of the myths and add necessary context to what has been published

James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence

Facts on the Collection of Intelligence Pursuant to Section 702


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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google