Director of National Intelligence James Clapper at a Senate Intelligence… (Susan Walsh / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The nation's top intelligence official formally acknowledged the Internet surveillance program code-named PRISM on Saturday, saying it had obtained foreign intelligence information from U.S. Internet companies under laws passed by Congress and with oversight from a secret intelligence court.
The four-page statement by James Clapper, director of national intelligence, came after several days of what he described as "reckless disclosures" to the media about classified National Security Agency operations that vacuum up and archive domestic telephone records and can access Internet material.
"Disclosing information about the specific methods the government uses to collect communications can obviously give our enemies a 'playbook' of how to avoid detection," Clapper said.
Clapper said he authorized the release of details "to dispel some of the myths and add necessary context to what has been published."
"PRISM is not an undisclosed collection or data-mining program," Clapper said. "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."
Clapper denied reports published in the Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper last week that the NSA, which conducts cyber spying, has direct access to the servers of Google, Facebook and Apple, among other companies. His statement Saturday largely supports their denials that they allowed U.S. intelligence agencies virtually unrestricted access to their servers.
Clapper said the government "does not unilaterally obtain information from the servers" of Internet providers. Access is obtained only with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and with the company's knowledge based on a written directive from the U.S. attorney general and from Clapper himself.
The NSA cannot target anyone under PRISM, he added, unless it can show 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."
Clapper said the collected communications had provided "insight into terrorist networks and plans" and "directly and significantly contributed to successful operations to impede the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
Former NSA officials described PRISM as part of a vast effort by the NSA to access global Internet traffic for foreign intelligence and information about terrorism. The effort includes tapping fiber-optic lines, undersea cables and satellite transmissions — with court approval if done in the U.S.
The officials said PRISM was created six years ago because increasing amounts of Internet traffic are encrypted and never enter the U.S., making it harder for the NSA to access. They said information was culled using "selectors," such as names, email addresses and phone numbers.