The nation's top intelligence official pushed back Saturday against the "myths" surrounding the disclosure of two classified government surveillance programs, saying the government cannot gather data on Americans' phone use and foreigners' Internet use without the permission of a specialized court, and that all three branches of government rigorously oversee the programs in question.
The two explosive stories this week - that Verizon regularly turns over telephone user data to the government and that a government program called PRISM tracks individuals' Internet use - were "reckless disclosures of intelligence community measures used to keep Americans safe," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement.
"Our ability to discuss these activities is limited by our need to protect intelligence sources and methods," Clapper said. "However, there are significant misimpressions that have resulted from the recent articles."
The DNI released a fact sheet that he hoped would "dispel some of the myths and add necessary context to what has been published."
In the fact sheet, Clapper said that "Prism is not an undisclosed collection or data mining program, but rather, a program that gathers intelligence information from tech companies - under court supervision - that has been "widely known and publicly discussed since its inception in 2008."} }
The government cannot target any U.S. citizen for surveillance using PRISM, Clapper wrote, and must seek court approval before they can target anyone.
Clapper also detailed the "extensive oversight regime" governing the use of both programs by all three branches of government. In addition to the court's regular oversight, he explained, the program was authorized by Congress and members of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees in both houses are regularly briefed on its operation.
Clapper also said that the insight provided by these programs has "led to successful efforts to mitigate" terrorist threats.
The revelations this week have drawn the condemnation of privacy advocates and the ire of some in Congress who worry that the balance between privacy and safety has tilted too far toward the latter.
The administration, though, has argued that the programs are a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism. Late on Thursday, Clapper said the "reprehensible" disclosure of the programs "threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation."
And on Friday,. "I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them, we scrubbed them thoroughly, we actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards. But my assessment and my team's assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks," he said. "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going have to make some choices as a society."