June 15th, 2013
09:39 PM ET
7 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. 2cool4me

    They only keep our phone metadata for 5 years. Excellent! All those miserable things I said about Obama and my wife will be deleted in just 4 years. I love living in the land of the free.

    June 16, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  2. Know Your Facts

    For those who just can't help giggling and wringing their hands while blaming Bush for this – just stop.

    Truth is, these very provisions of the Patriot Act – wiretapping, keeping records on businesses, and surveillance of individual citizens – are the SAME ones that were set to expire in 2011. That is until the very person that you would absolve of ANY responsibility here signed their extension!

    That's right, boys and girls – the one and only Barack Obama! Remember he fought against the Patriot Act as an invasion of privacy, but now touts it as necessary. Smart though – distances himself just far enough that if it works he can take the credit, but if it goes south, he can STILL blame someone else...

    June 16, 2013 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  3. tiger

    Congress and politican should be most afraid. All this collected data can be used to threaten and blackmail them. That is how the Bush / Cheney gang and their Agency buds do business. They have the dirt on nearly everyone in Congress and WH, and so get them to do just as they wish.
    Search/ read/ youtube; Trance-Formation of America by Cathy O'Brien and Mark Philips

    June 16, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  4. Richard

    The chances any of your conversations were listened to is about 66 million to 1. That's assuming the NSA randomly targeted people, which they didn't. Non-random monitoring means the chances of any of your calls being listened to is just about impossible.

    June 16, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  5. Peter

    Obama is planning on delivering Bush, Cheney, and Hayden to the Hague in his last days of Office, along with Bucketloads of evidence against them.

    June 16, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  6. Indy

    Less then 300 times. That sounds an awful lot like......5 days a week for a whole year.

    June 16, 2013 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  7. HenryMiller

    Yeah, and the IRS is "only" supposed to be in charge of collecting taxes, not in intimidating people and organisations on the White House Enemies List. If the IRS abuses its power, how in the world can we trust even more secretive organisations like the NSA?

    June 16, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  8. allenwoll

    HOW can ANY reasonable person BROADCAST his business in the clear into the the ether and then retain any notion that that business remains private from WHOMEVER wants to take a listen / peek ! ! !
    These agitated folk need to better inform themselves of the characteristics of the communication tools which they use.
    If your communication is ACTUALLY to be held private, use an "electronic envelope" (encryption), similar in function to the paper one you use for your First Class postal communications - but more secure.
    THEN give all this political gibberish a rest.

    June 16, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  9. ummmmm?

    noooooooo.... say it isnt so! Would OUR lovely government EVER put out a cover up story? They never lie, never cross boundaries. everyone in any office is 100% honest....lmbo.... im fibbing like the government, sorry. now I see how easy it is...lol

    June 16, 2013 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  10. whatguy

    One hint, if you have to ask about something "does the ends justify the means" the answer is no. If you have to assume someone can be hurt by something but hope that it does more good it is wrong. Our government needs to relearn its place a subject of the people not a group the people are subject to. It is long overdo for everyone in the federal government to lose their jobs, vote out everyone you can for those who understand the place of the federal government, and if they don't reign it in either, vote them out too next election.

    June 16, 2013 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
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