Privacy groups and some lawmakers are in an uproar after news reports this week that the U.S. National Security Agency is conducting broad surveillance of the nation's residents.
British newspaper the Guardian reported Thursday that the NSA, with authorization from the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, has been collecting the phone records of a large number of Verizon customers.
Later that day, the Guardian and the Washington Post reported that the NSA and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation also have access to servers at Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other major providers of Internet services, collecting audio, video, email and other content for surveillance. Some of the companies denied that the NSA and FBI have access to their servers.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA is also collecting customer records from AT&T, Sprint Nextel and credit-card companies.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence for President Barack Obama, defended the PRISM program targeting Internet communications. The Guardian and Post articles "contain numerous inaccuracies," Clapper said in a statement.
The program is authorized by Congress and focuses on "the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States," Clapper added. "It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States."
Information collected under the program is "among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats," Clapper added. "The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans."
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, also defended NSA's collection of Verizon business records. That information collection is authorized by the surveillance court and by Congress, and a similar program has thwarted a planned terrorist attack in the U.S. in the recent past, Rogers said.
The NSA needs to follow court-approved methods to query the phone records it is collecting, Rogers added. Queries are run on a "fraction of a fraction of a fraction of 1 percent" of the data collected, he said. "They're not data mining," he said. "None of that is happening."
Rogers didn't have an immediate comment on the reports that the NSA and FBI are collecting data from Internet services.
Still, many privacy groups accused the Obama administration and Congress of violating the U.S. Constitution's protections against unreasonable searches of U.S. residents.
-- Statement from Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology: "In the face of this avalanche of frightening revelations about the breadth of the NSA's surveillance programs, one thing is clear: It's time for a reckoning. The American people should not have to play guessing games about whether and how their own government is monitoring them. We need a sustained investigation into how far these programs reach into the private lives of American citizens."
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