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. Rubberhead

    Only 300 searches...good.

    But, wait a minute. The 14 Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. So, quit seizing the data and then you'll be within the bounds of the law you swore to protect and serve.

    June 16, 2013 07:20 am at 7:20 am |
  2. Marie MD

    Let's continue to give terrorists, both foreign and domestic, more information to being the US down.

    June 16, 2013 07:24 am at 7:24 am |
  3. stayinalive

    People have blown this way out proportion. Some 29 year old "whistleblower", if you can even call him that, was looking for his 15 minutes of fame. With thousands of workers working at the NSA, surely there would be a few more coming forward as whistleblowers. But they're not, probably because there is no truth that the government is listening in on your calls. I totally understand the need to keep 5 years worth of meta data and it is highly unlikely that the government is going to be knocking on my door because of something I've posted online or said in a telephone call. Get over yourselves you conspiracy theorists.

    June 16, 2013 08:00 am at 8:00 am |
  4. Rick McDaniel

    There is no adequate justification, for spying on everyone in America. None.

    That is nothing but the mark of a true dictator.........taking control of our country.

    June 16, 2013 08:09 am at 8:09 am |
  5. Phaerisee

    We need to follow the example of the Greatest Generation and lead by example, not sneak around in the dark spying on our own people without warrants.

    June 16, 2013 08:11 am at 8:11 am |
  6. jqcitizen

    It's a question of timing and I dont see how people can't get this. Lets say, for example, the government starts gathering all this data on Jan1, 2010. 3 years later, on March 15, 2013, some FBI investigation decides they have probable cause to get a wiretap warrant. It is only from that point in time (March 15, 2013) and only for a specific amount of time FORWARD do the authorities have the right to violate your privacy. It should not be tolerated to allow retroactive searches back to 2010 or 2011.

    June 16, 2013 08:36 am at 8:36 am |
  7. mkuske

    The argument, "You don't have to worry if you aren't calling somebody with suspected terrorist ties" doesn't hold much water. In a world where one person is only 6 or 7 degrees separated from any other random person on the planet, it doesn't take much for them to be invading innocent people's privacy. Suppose Person A is suspected of having terrorist ties and Person B contacts Person A. Person B is now also suspected of having terrorist ties and the highest degree of separation falls from 7 to 6. Person C contacts Person B. Since Person B is suspected of having terrorist ties, Person C is now also suspected of having terrorist ties and the highest degree of separation falls to 5. This continues with random people making random everyday contact, with the degrees of separation falling then to 4...then to 3...then to 2...then to 1...then to...you.

    If the average person is acquainted with just 200 people, 7 degrees applied to that 200 is roughly 12 Quadrillion individual connections or 2 million times the population of the earth. So yes, you are only 7 degrees separated from a terrorist at most. Somebody you know is 6 degrees separated at most. Somebody they know is only 5 degrees separated, again, at most. It only takes a handful of hops for them to rationalize monitoring your communications. With what's recently come out about IRS targeting for political reasons and the Justice Department for political reasons and the EPA targeting for political reasons it's not hard to imagine our government rationalizing targeting anybody for political reasons.

    June 16, 2013 08:50 am at 8:50 am |
  8. alex

    There is no justification for violating the 4th amendment. Simply collecting and storing the information for future needs is a violation. The gov can say they have all these safe guards in place but that doesn't change the fact that the data is being seized and stored unlawfully. Who knows what the next administration will say what justifies looking into this massive big brother database. STOP THE PROGRAM.

    June 16, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  9. Dan Carter

    The next thing you know, the cops will start strong-arming everyone to take DNA samples of everyone. Oh, wait!

    June 16, 2013 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  10. ELRod

    Since the private corporations that the NSA mines this data from maintain their own records of calls in a database why does the NSA need to create its own repository of this data? Why cant they do what has always been done? Like get a search warrant.

    June 16, 2013 10:15 am at 10:15 am |
  11. Paul46

    Snowden says 300 million. NSA says 300. I Wonder who's fibbing here?

    June 16, 2013 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  12. Pete

    This is just another witch hunt started by republicans because everything else they've gone after has left egg on their faces...Remember posters companies pay for your personal info from groups like PayPal,Amazon,EBay and others to figure how to make you buy their products in the future so what's different when Big Brother takes your cell call lists,info just the same because it all becomes public whether you like it or not..Thank you Bush for Big Brothers intrusion into our lives via Patriot Act,Homeland Security and republicans I warned you back then your imbecile in a president created,inacted it but I was unpatriotic,unamerican but what I said has come to life today with their intrusion into our lives and who's laughing now about the whole thing when I said I told yah so,smart asses!!

    June 16, 2013 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  13. frank landa

    They can only listen if its a Tea Party or NRA or Republican phone call.

    June 16, 2013 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  14. Larry L

    Does anybody actually believe we can operate a military force or fight trans-national terrorists without classified intelligence? How could we allow Snowden, a traitor who surfed the top secret net to find "interesting data" to give the Chineese, to violate the law and cause such damage to our intelligence system? How would you hold the next guy accountable if all that's required is to call yourself a "whistle-blower"? Do we allow everybody who is trusted with top secret information to decide when they should release it to the press? To our enemies!

    June 16, 2013 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  15. plain&simple

    Whatever happened to JOBS AND REBUILDING our INFRASTRUCTURE!!! No one cares that congress has done nothing??? No gun control,no tax reform?Nothing but smoke!! Must be to hard to actually work so let's form committees and act like we are doing somthing. Pass some legislation!!! How about that?

    June 16, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  16. DMC

    These are the same people that 3 months ago, before Congress, swore there was no such program.

    They are liars and are *never* to be trusted.

    June 16, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  17. Jaimie

    Never believe a word they say. That way you will know the truth.

    June 16, 2013 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  18. Kingsley egboro

    If you dont have bad interior motives in your phone calls and online communication,you will not bother to question the NSA programme.

    June 16, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  19. WeirdMN

    In the eyes of the Obama administration, we're all suspected terrorists.

    June 16, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  20. John Yaya

    All I know is whatever the government admits to in public is only the tip of the iceberg. Graduated, compartmentalized mitigation. A snow job, plain and simple

    June 16, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  21. rschier

    Therefore one in a million chance, and even if that lottery is one, there's probably a further 1 in a million chance anyone is going to find anything remotely interesting about your inconsequential babble. Self-importance has become this nation's credo. Next time, they should make sure anyone they hire is an adult.

    June 16, 2013 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  22. Pete

    @Rick McDaniel,quit fretting big boy the dictator can't make sense of your ignorent rants anyway,your clean!!You think the Patriot Act,Homeland Security thinks you're a threat,dream on idiot because the only threat you pose is to yourself ...Your dictator in Bush should've been tried years ago at the Hague Netherlands for human rights violations and Pres.Obama would have to do a 180 to be as ignorent as you and your idols in the Bushs!!

    June 16, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  23. Anonymous

    Who would believe anything our government says? WHO? They always lie, they have never told the truth about anything! People of so naive, whatever they tell you, you can believe the opposite is true

    June 16, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  24. Laura

    The government isn't interested in my phone calls. They would die of boredom. Also, that horse left the barn years ago.

    June 16, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  25. SixDegrees

    McCarthyism in its latest guise.

    June 16, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
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