June 15th, 2013
09:39 PM ET
5 years ago

Intelligence community provides fuller justification for data collection

(CNN) -– The intelligence community has provided Congress additional counterterrorism justification for the government’s controversial stockpiles of telephone and Internet records.

Further, officials searched the database that holds telephone metadata fewer than 300 times last year, according to a document prepared by the intelligence community for members of Congress and provided to CNN by a congressional source.

The database is made up of billions of phone records the telephone companies are required to provide to the National Security Agency, and investigators use the data to assemble webs of who suspected terrorists have been in touch with. The NSA must delete records after five years, the letter says.

The government has said the data collected under the program - authorized by the Patriot Act and reviewed by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court - includes information such as a "telephone number or the length of a call," and the new document stresses the program "does not allow the government to listen to anyone's phone calls."

To search the data the NSA amasses, the document stresses investigators must have a "reasonable suspicion" and connect "an identifier," such as a name or telephone number, to "specific foreign terrorist organizations."

But privacy advocates have raised concerns over the program and also one that collects online communications. The existence of the programs, including a surveillance system known as PRISM that collects certain information from major technology companies including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo, became known after a former National Security Agency and CIA contractor leaked information to two newspapers.

Taken together, "the intelligence gathered under them has contributed to the disruption of dozens of potential terrorist plots here in the homeland and in more than 20 countries around the world," the document said.

It provided no information about previously undisclosed attacks but noted the intelligence community is "working to be able to provide more information about this."

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said some information could emerge in the coming days. She told reporters after a closed-door briefing on Thursday with National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander that "what he wants to give us are the cases where this has stopped a terrorist attack, both here and in other places. And he wants to be exact about the details. So we should have that Monday."

Other indications were that the information might be available later in the week.

The document, released ahead of the Sunday morning political talk programs, detailed how the phone records database was used in the case of Najibullah Zazi, who plotted to bomb the New York subway system.

Senior U.S. counterterrorism officials have previously told CNN that U.S. and British databases scooped up a September 2009 e-mail to Zazi by a sender connected to a suspected al Qaeda cell in Britain. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said communications intercepted in the Zazi case were critical in the investigation, which led to Zazi's 2010 guilty plea.

The document revealed investigators also used phone records collected under the program, "identifying and passing additional leads back to the FBI for investigation."

"One of these leads revealed a previously unknown number for co-conspirator Adis Medunjanin and corroborated his connection to Zazi as well as to other U.S.-based extremists," it read.

Previously, the intelligence community has cited e-mails collected in the Zazi case as a justification for the program, but some have since questioned whether the e-mails were obtained or could have been obtained through other avenues.

The programs are expected to be in the spotlight again on Sunday, when several current and former government officials are slated to appear on political programs.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers will be interviewed on CNN's "State of the Union," as will Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez. Glenn Greenwald, one of the reporters who broke the story, will appear on CNN's "Reliable Sources."

Also slated for Sunday morning interviews are former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden; former Vice President Dick Cheney; and Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff. Rogers will also be interviewed on CBS.

Filed under: Homeland Security • Intelligence
soundoff (60 Responses)
  1. Thomas

    If we are going to adapt to climate change , were going to have to adapt to our information being archived .

    Welcome to our new world !

    Perry / Palin 2016
    We can live in the past forever !

    June 15, 2013 10:09 pm at 10:09 pm |
  2. Joe

    No-one believes that propaganda. 300 times? More like 300 thousand times

    June 15, 2013 10:38 pm at 10:38 pm |
  3. emDFW

    300 times in a year? Hey, that's only once each work day (plus a couple extra for good measure). Pffff.

    June 15, 2013 10:48 pm at 10:48 pm |
  4. YouOwnIt

    It's not how many search or even whether or not the surches take place it the fact that the government has all or our phone, emails, etc and the potential for abuse from a government that has been shown to be abusive (IRS scandal).

    June 15, 2013 10:55 pm at 10:55 pm |
  5. korkea aika

    Anything labled "PATRIOT" has grown to mean "UNPATRIOTIC"

    June 15, 2013 10:55 pm at 10:55 pm |
  6. Ed1

    Take this traitor down and lock him away for ever or try him for treason either way he needs to pay for if nothing else but being STUPID.

    June 15, 2013 11:02 pm at 11:02 pm |
  7. mrethiopian

    Data has been searched on 300 times, how do we know this to be true, is their a second set of data that has been searched 400000 times? We are told that data was used to stop (x) number of terrorist events, how can the government prove this without exposing the data?

    To date we have been told the data has been used to track Terrorist and Pedophiles, if true one would think that we would be see a plethora of Pedophiles busts, to date we only see the random busts that we normally see, stings that go on for years and bust 4 people from Georgia.

    To me the number don't equate, if this data was really being used for what we have been told the number of busts would have increased dramatically, if true and that all that the government has found, then either their using the data incorrectly or not using for what they have told us.

    MrEthiopian – In a data base being tracked because I'm using my right of freedom of speech.

    June 15, 2013 11:38 pm at 11:38 pm |
  8. yc

    what makes us believe that the governtment is telling the truth??

    June 15, 2013 11:58 pm at 11:58 pm |
  9. CommonGround

    "[F]ewer than 300 times last year" is a modest number of queries per year - and well-suited for traditional, narrow, judicially reviewed subpoenas to the telephone companies. If necessary, follow-up subpoenas can be issued. This is the normal, effective legal process. By contrast, demanding all phone records of all Americans on an continuing basis is way overbroad.
    Also, the blog indicates that _multiple_ "telephone companies are required to provide to the National Security Agency," not just Verizon. This is news to me, though not surprising.

    June 16, 2013 12:05 am at 12:05 am |
  10. Donnie the Lion

    As I commented on other articles.....it is one thing to have that information, it is another to access it and act upon it willy-nilly.

    June 16, 2013 12:18 am at 12:18 am |
  11. David

    This story is totally Dog Bites Man. There are search warrants for all forms of communication and crime. Why would search warrants on electronic correspondence on espionage and terror be surprising? Yes, the data collected is very broad but how else would one collect it? This isn't the U.S. Postal Service–it's highly decentralized, automated and high speed. The collection efforts have to match the system. If warrantless searches were being performed, then that would be newsworthy but that's not what's been reported. Our "whistleblower" was just whistling Dixie. Let's all move on.

    June 16, 2013 12:36 am at 12:36 am |
  12. allenwoll

    Anyone worried about the privacy of his electronic communications should take the same precautions which he usually employs with postal communications : Use an envelope ! ! . In the case of electronic comm, the "envelope" is known as "encryption", which is cheap, effective and practically "non-steamable". . END OF STORY ! ! !
    Nothing more here, Folks : Go Home ! !

    June 16, 2013 01:01 am at 1:01 am |
  13. PaulaRoz

    Proposed Government handling:

    All secreted court orders allowing these privacy infringements be published in their entirety; and any promulgated in the future immediately on going into effect.

    Each and every successful instance in which the databases are used be published immediately at their conclusion to include the role that the database information played ih the matter. (The Zazi case was resolved in 2010, three years ago. We should have been told then of any database involvement.)

    A “Statement of Transparency” issued by all agencies accessing the database pledging that complete information will be published as soon as a threat discovered through use of a database is resolved in whatever manner.

    Any provisions of the Patriot Act that “legitimatize” this secret intrusion into citizens’ privacy be immediately repealed or, in the alternative, the entire abhorrent Act be be set aside.

    We should not have to rely on the courage—or foolishness if you want—of Snowdens to be fully-informed American citizens of our government’s behavior. Government officials serve us as our elected representatives. They do not dictate the actions of government then frivolously and arbitrarily kept secret by them.

    June 16, 2013 01:01 am at 1:01 am |
  14. BaaahRaaamYuuuuu

    "Officials: NSA programs broke plots in 20 nations"

    GREAT! Did we collect income tax from the citizens of these 20 nations?????

    June 16, 2013 01:04 am at 1:04 am |
  15. rbk

    save Gordon Freeman!

    June 16, 2013 01:29 am at 1:29 am |
  16. Snark Week

    Crap. The government knows how much I like pizza and dislike my mother in law.

    June 16, 2013 01:32 am at 1:32 am |
  17. wildbill

    We have to do something now!!!

    June 16, 2013 01:47 am at 1:47 am |
  18. wildbill

    American people we have to unite and put an end to this and start new.

    June 16, 2013 01:53 am at 1:53 am |
  19. mountainlady

    So let me be sure I understand. If you call the phone number of a known jihadist and spend enough time on the phone with him the NSA starts tracking your electronic activity. And this is worthy of all the drama that is going on about Edward Snowden? I should hope to shout that somebody is paying attention to who is pals with known terrorists! Snowden is a self-aggrandizing opportunist who wants to see his face in the news. Now he's sharing classified national security information with the Chinese (which under any definition is treason) and there are Americans treating him like a hero? I didn't agree with the Patriot Act when it was enacted. I don't agree with it now. But using easily available social network data to prevent another Boston seems like a worthy cause to me. Of course I hear that there are groupies who are fans of the surviving Boston bomber too. Probably the same people who think Edward Snowden is terrific. Sick.

    June 16, 2013 02:01 am at 2:01 am |
  20. Big_D

    Udall for President, time to elect somebody that deserves it for a clear consistent message and real morals. I am proud to have Udall as my representative. He stands for what is right and American. Real values are a rare thing.

    June 16, 2013 02:06 am at 2:06 am |
  21. Zoglet

    Do we have ANY reason to believe we are being told the full truth here?

    June 16, 2013 02:44 am at 2:44 am |
  22. bankrupt1

    I'm still mad. I have to convert all of this email and family junk and they don't have any nice way to just zip it off or save to a file. no...they just make the most tenacious piece of crap to get out of and away from.

    June 16, 2013 03:55 am at 3:55 am |
  23. king

    lesson folks this war we are fighting might last hundreds of years, because this is not a conventional border war, its a war of ideology, and if we dont change the minds of our enemies that their efforts to destroy us is fruitless, we are in a lot of trouble. we cannot afford to give these guys hope of destroying us by lowering our defense mechanism, because all they need is one chance to create havoc and change our way of living in America. we are doing the right thing with security right now, but we need to not go in reading or lessening into regular americans folks conversations while they communicate. that is a line that would be crossed for me. now if they want to collect phone, internet, etc records without lessening to Americans to keep us safe. Americans should be able to live with that. as i said before our enemies only need one successful terrorist act, to change the way we live.

    June 16, 2013 06:50 am at 6:50 am |
  24. Quixote

    And all the tinfoil hatters assume that they were the target because of all the amazing secrets that you will never hear in the media that they know from reading breebert and listening to rushbo make them prime targets for the black helicopters.....because they are oh so very important that the intelligence community cares which man on man websites they visit every afternoon for three minutes or less.

    June 16, 2013 06:57 am at 6:57 am |
  25. Anonymous

    I don't care if the database was searched. I do care that it is created and maintained.

    June 16, 2013 07:13 am at 7:13 am |
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