Top US spy warns phone surveillance leak could harm national security

Spy chief James Clapper said leaks of secret court documents could harm US

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 10:43am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 10:43am

America’s top spy chief James Clapper warned on Thursday that leaks of secret court documents about a scheme to capture millions of phone records risked US national security.

In a statement, Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said “the unauthorised disclosure of a top secret US court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.”

Clapper’s intervention came as controversy swirled over a National Security Agency scheme to sweep up millions of telephone records and data in a program designed to find suspicious patterns of activity that could tip off US authorities to terror attacks.

The program does not involve the “tapping” of phones, nor agents listening in to conversations, but instead collects data to be analysed in complicated mathematical programs.

Clapper said a newspaper article in The Guardian that discussed the program, based on a secret court document ordering phone provider Verizon to turn over records, was “misleading.”

“The article omits key information regarding how a classified intelligence collection program is used to prevent terrorist attacks and the numerous safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties,” Clapper wrote.

Clapper said he had ordered the declassification of certain information about the program so Americans could understand the limits of its use.

He said a “robust” legal regime was in place to govern the practice, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and said the collecting of telephone records was authorised by Congress.

Clapper said that the US government was prohibited by law from “indiscriminately sifting” through the collected data and swept up by the program.

“All information that is acquired under this order is subject to strict restrictions on handling and is overseen by the Department of Justice and the FISA court.

“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.”

Clapper said the program was reviewed by the FISA court nearly every 90 days and was under the rigorous oversight of the Department of Justice.

“Discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behaviour of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions.

“Surveillance programs like this one are consistently subject to safeguards that are designed to strike the appropriate balance between national security interests and civil liberties and privacy concerns,” he said.

“I believe it is important to address the misleading impression left by the article and to reassure the American people that the intelligence community is committed to respecting the civil liberties and privacy of all American citizens.”