WASHINGTON – Amid a furor over the secret programs’ threat to privacy, the top U.S. intelligence chief is seeking a criminal probe into leaks of government monitoring of Internet users and phone records.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed Saturday that U.S. spy agencies use the PRISM program to gather data trails left by targeted foreign citizens using the Internet outside the United States.
But in an interview with NBC News, portions of which aired Sunday, he called the disclosures “literally gut-wrenching” and said they had caused “huge, grave damage” to U.S. intelligence capabilities.
“The NSA has filed a crimes report on this already,” Clapper told NBC, referring to the leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post.
He said he was “profoundly offended” that a disgruntled intelligence officer was a source for the leaks. “This is someone who for whatever reason has chosen to violate a sacred trust for this country,” he said. “And, so, I hope we’re able to track down whoever’s doing this, because it is extremely damaging to, and it affects the safety and security of this country.”
Glenn Greenwald, the reporter from The Guardian who brought to light the PRISM program and a separate program that trawls through U.S. phone records, said the public has a right to know and openly debate what the government has been doing. “Every time there’s a whistle-blower, someone who exposes government wrongdoing, the tactic is to demonize them as a traitor,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“What they were seeing being done in secret, inside the United States government, is so alarming they simply want one thing,” he said. “And that is, they want the American people to learn about this massive spying apparatus and what the capabilities are, so we can have an open, honest debate.”
Clapper said he understood public concerns about the invasion of privacy and threats to civil liberties, but that “a lot of what people are seeing and reading in the media is a lot of hyperbole.”
The intelligence chief has declassified some details of the PRISM program in the face of a storm of controversy over suggestions that the government had back-door access to the servers of Internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo.
Clapper’s statement described a system whereby the government must apply to a secret U.S. court for permission to target individuals or entities, then issue a request to the service provider.
“The government cannot target anyone under the court-approved procedures . . . unless there is an appropriate, and documented, foreign intelligence purpose for the acquisition,” Clapper said.
He admitted that data on U.S. citizens might be “incidentally intercepted” in the course of targeting a foreign national, but said this would not normally be shared within the intelligence community unless it confirmed a threat.