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NSA Director Denies Data Mining


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. For nearly a week, we've seen a series of leaks that have brought to light secret surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency. The Obama administration has vigorously defended the programs. On Friday, the president himself said that, quote, "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience." Yesterday, his top intelligence advisor James Clapper declassified more details of the program known as PRISM. Also yesterday, the Guardian newspaper put out yet another story about the NSA and the technology it uses to spy on the Internet. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following all the threads of this story. She joins us in our studios. Good morning, Dina.


MARTIN: So, all this was sparked by two stories this past week in which classified documents leaked to the media provided details about top secret surveillance programs. What did the director of national intelligence have to say about this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, just so we can sort all this out, these newspaper stories revealed details about two different programs. So, let me deal with the first one really quickly. It had to do with collecting information on all the phone calls coming in and out of the U.S. It was revealed after the leak of a classified document that showed the ruling of a special court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And the court gave the government permission to collect all that information in the form of something called metadata. Now, metadata looks a little like your phone bill. So, it shows the calls made and duration, and that sort of thing. And then there was a second program that was revealed in the Washington Post and The Guardian newspaper. And that's the one that the director of national intelligence focused on. He said the program, which, as you said, is known as PRISM, was misrepresented in the media reports.

MARTIN: OK. How? How misrepresented?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the newspaper articles said that the PRISM program tapped directly into the computers of major Internet companies like Google and Apple and Facebook and it collected information on foreign users. Now, the companies flat-out denied that and denied that they were letting the government tap into their servers. And so there was this conflict between the media reports and the companies' denials. And it looks like the companies were right. The director of national intelligence provided clarity by saying that the newspaper reports were wrong, that PRISM wasn't a program exactly. It was a tool, an internal government system. And it allows an analyst to integrate information gleaned from the Internet companies and from other various government databases.

So, Clapper is saying it's not a data-mining program as the newspapers were reporting. And he also said that the information isn't taken directly from the Internet companies' computers. Instead, the government has to go to this special court - the FISA court, get a warrant to get the companies to turn over the information. And Clapper said that permission, in order to get it, they have to prove to the court that they have a foreign target that's important to a national security investigation. He said Americans couldn't be intentionally part of these searches.

MARTIN: OK. So, just so we're clear here: there is a classified data collection program. It's just that PRISM isn't that. It's actually an analysis tool.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, the lingo for this is graphic user interface, or GUI. And there are lots of companies in Silicon Valley that provide this kind of analysis software. In fact, we've reported on one called Palantir, which pulls information together and uses icons to allow analysts to see connections graphically. PRISM appears to be something like that.

MARTIN: OK. So, moving onto another thread in this story. The Guardian newspaper then published another story based on a leak - they published it yesterday. It describes another classified NSA program. What can you tell us about that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the newspaper said it had an NSA internal document about a tool that can categorize volumes of information that the U.S. collects. It is called Boundless Informant. And it basically allows users to select a country on a map and view how many pieces of data have been collected for that particular country. Not too surprisingly, there was more collected on Iran than anywhere else. According to the document, there were three billion pieces of information collected from the United States and 14 billion from Iran. Here's why that's important: members of Congress have been asking for some time if the NSA had this sort of measurement, and it appears that they did.

MARTIN: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Thank you so much, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.