The nation's top intelligence office declassified elements of a top secret spying program Thursday, hours after news broke that government surveillance was not limited just to millions of Verizon customers, but included Facebook, Google and Apple users.
James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, says the widely reported cell phone and Internet surveillance program authorized under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court is legal and integral to preventing terrorist attacks.
He also claims that the government needs access to the massive swath of data from users that includes those who have not committed crimes in order to track terrorist activities.
"The collection is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism-related communications," Clapper said Thursday night in a statement. "Acquiring this information allows us to make connections related to terrorist activities over time."
The court prohibits intelligence analysts from "indiscriminately sifting through" the telephone records, limiting them to only seeking out trends related to terrorist activity when there is "reasonable suspicion." Only specifically cleared counterterrorism officials trained in court-approved procedures may access these records, Clapper said.
"Only a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed because the vast majority of the data is not responsive to any terrorism-related query," he said.
Clapper also countered recent reports from the Guardian and the Washington Post that first reported this story, saying that FISA does not allow for intentional targeting of a U.S. citizen within the U.S.
"Section 702 is a provision of FISA that is designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States," he said. "It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States."
Clapper told the National Journal Thursday that he stand by comments he made before Congress in March that the U.S. does not spy on its own citizens "willingly," but that it would be able to do so.
"What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mails. I stand by that," he told the Journal.