WASHINGTON NYTIMES: — The federal government has been secretly gathering information from the nation’s largest Internet companies going back nearly six years — including Google, Facebook and, most recently, Apple — according to documents that emerged on Thursday. A senior government official confirmed the program, but said it targeted only foreigners abroad.
While the data provided varies according to the online provider, it could include e-mail, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing and logins — according to an apparently highly classified document describing the National Security Agency program called Prism.
The program is authorized under law and was recently reauthorized by Congress, said the senior official, who said it minimizes the collection and retention of information “incidentally acquired” about Americans and permanent residents. Several of the Internet companies issued statements strongly denying knowledge of or participation in the program.
“The law does not allow the targeting of any U.S. citizen or of any person located within the United States,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss a highly classified program. “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 threats.”
But the disclosure of the documents by American and British newspapers came just hours after government officials acknowledged a separate seven-year effort to sweep up records of telephone calls inside the United States. Together, the unfolding disclosures opened an extraordinary window into the growth of government surveillance that began under the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and has clearly been embraced and even expanded under the Obama administration.
The extraordinary revelations, in rapid succession, also suggested that someone with access to high-level intelligence secrets had decided to unveil them in the midst of furor over leak investigations. Both were reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, while The Washington Post, relying upon the same presentation, simultaneously reported the Internet company tapping. The Post said a disenchanted intelligence official provided it with the documents to expose government overreach.
Before the disclosure of the alleged Internet company surveillance program late Thursday, the White House and Congressional leaders defended the phone program, saying it was legal and necessary to protect national security.
Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the kind of surveillance at issue “has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.” He added: “The president welcomes a discussion of the trade-offs between security and civil liberties.”
The Guardian and The Post posted several slides from the 41-page presentation about the Internet program, listing the companies involved — which included Yahoo, Microsoft, Paytalk, AOL, Skype and YouTube — and the dates they joined the program, as well as listing the types of information collected under the program.
The N.S.A. and other government agencies declined to comment about the disclosures. The possibility of a broad government sweep of domestic telephone data in pursuit of potential terrorists has long been suspected by civil liberties advocates and even hinted at by members of Congress. But the public disclosure of a secret court order confirmed it in a more concrete way than ever before.
The reports came as President Obama was traveling to meet President Xi Jinping of China at an estate in Southern California, a meeting intended to address among other things complaints about Chinese cyberattacks and spying. Now that conversation will take place amid discussion of America’s own vast surveillance operations on its own citizens.