US intelligence agencies say they checked the metadata of fewer than 300 telephone accounts in 2012 as they seek to play down privacy concerns raised by the disclosure of classified surveillance programmes.
In a three-page memo to Congress, the agencies said two of the programmes disclosed by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden – the collection of phone call metadata and the Prism programme that obtains data from US internet companies – had "contributed to the disruption of dozens of potential terrorist plots here in the homeland and in more than 20 countries around the world".
The memo was disclosed by the Senate intelligence committee but its authors were not revealed. It shows how US intelligence agencies will try to keep their authority to spy on telephones and emails by arguing there are counterterrorism benefits and safeguards for citizens.
Mike Rogers, the Republican chair of the House intelligence committee, said yesterday: "As people get a better feeling that this is a lockbox with only phone numbers, no names, no addresses in it, we've used it sparingly. It is absolutely overseen by the legislature, the judicial branch and the executive branch, has lots of protections built in. If you can see just the number of cases where we've actually stopped the plot, I think Americans will come to a different conclusion than all the misleading rhetoric I've heard over the past few weeks."
The memo says the collection of telephone metadata – such as the numbers somebody dials and the length of the call – is designed to track communications between terrorists outside the US who are contacting potential operatives inside the US.
It says intelligence officials can only access the database if there is reasonable suspicion that a phone number is associated with a specific foreign terrorist organisation and the government "does not indiscriminately sift" through the data. All the metadata is destroyed after five years.
Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said President Barack Obama would speak more about surveillance in the coming days and it was a matter of finding the right balance “in this new situation where we find ourselves with all of us reliant on internet, on email, on texting”. On the Prism programme, the memo emphasises that officials cannot request data on any US citizen or anybody inside the US.
Facebook and Microsoft have revealed the number of government requests for information – with Facebook saying it had 9,000-10,000 requests in the second half of 2012.
Intelligence officials spell out how both programmes were used in the case of Najibullah Zazi, convicted for conspiring to bomb the New York subway.
But critics say the government has long had the authority to monitor email accounts of suspected terrorists, but that before changes in the law and the creation of Prism it needed a warrant to do so.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013)