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US confirms secret web data collection overseas

Charlie Savage, Edward Wyatt and Peter Baker (via NYT/ AFR) | June 7, 2013
The US federal government has been secretly collecting information on foreigners overseas for nearly six years from the nation's largest internet companies like Google, Facebook and, most recently, Apple, in search of national security threats.

The dual revelations, in rapid succession, 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 The Guardian, while The Post, relying upon the same presentation, almost simultaneously reported the internet company tapping. The Post said a disenchanted intelligence official had 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 reports came as President Barack Obama was travelling 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 Americas own vast surveillance operations.

But while the administration and lawmakers who supported the telephone records program emphasised that all three branches of government had signed off on it, Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union denounced the surveillance as an infringement of fundamental individual liberties, no matter how many parts of the government approved of it.

"A pox on all the three houses of government," Mr Romero said. "On Congress, for legislating such powers, on the FISA court for being such a paper tiger and rubber stamp, and on the Obama administration for not being true to its values."

Others raised concerns about whether the telephone program was effective.

Word of the program emerged when The Guardian posted an April order from the secret foreign intelligence court directing a subsidiary of Verizon Communications to give the NSA on an ongoing daily basis until July logs of communications between the United States and abroad or wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.

On Thursday, Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Democrat and top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said the court order appeared to be a routine reauthorisation as part of a broader program that lawmakers had long known about and supported.


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