US President Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama Reuters

The U.S. Administration under President Barack Obama is on defense after media revelations of large-scale surveillance programs that tapped into ordinary U.S. citizens' use of telephones and the internet.

The director of national intelligence confirmed Thursday night that the federal government has been secretly collecting information on foreigners overseas for nearly six years from the nation’s largest Internet companies like Google, Facebook and, most recently, Apple.

Officials told the New York Times that the data was gathered as part of a program code-named Prism, which is authorized under a foreign intelligence law that was recently renewed by Congress, and that the program searches for national security threats.

Government officials also acknowledged a separate seven-year effort to sweep up records of telephone calls inside the United States.

Civil liberties advocates, libertarian conservatives and other critics, most notably some British newspapers, said the disclosures prove that the U.S. is turning into a “surveillance state.”

The Internet surveillance program collects data from online providers including e-mail, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing and log-ins, according to classified documents obtained and posted by the Washington Post and the Guardian on Thursday afternoon.

The law that underlies the program “cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States,” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement.

“Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”

Critics see the revelations as confirming suspicions that civil liberties have eroded significantly since the 9/11 attacks, and are eroding even more rapidly under Obama than under his predecessor.

“This is a truly stunning revelation,” Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Washington Post. “This suggests that the government has been compiling a comprehensive record of Americans’ associations and possibly even their whereabouts.”

Writing in the British Guardian, Jonathan Turley said the surveillance was “conducted under an order from our controversial secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa), and demanded by the Justice Department and the FBI.”

"Now we can see the inevitable consequence of this secret court and the administration's surveillance program,” Turley explained. “The administration is creating a massive databank for all calls, including calls within the United States. This surveillance program is the result of a sense of political immunity reflected in this administration.

"With some Democrats blindly following this president, there appears no concern over excessive surveillance or the ever-expanding security state. It is the final evidence of how Obama has truly crippled the civil liberties movement in the United States,” he wrote.

USA Today noted that the revelations come on the heels of revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative Tea Party groups seeking non-profit status, and of the use of secret subpoenas and search warrants against the Associated Press and Fox News in Justice Department investigations of news leaks.

Clapper called the disclosure regarding Prism “reprehensible" and said the leak could harm the nation's intelligence gathering activities.

“The article omits key information regarding how a classified intelligence collection program is used to prevent terrorist attacks and the numerous safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties.

"I believe it is important for the American people to understand the limits of this targeted counter-terrorism program and the principles that govern its use," he said.

Clapper added that the government was "prohibited from indiscriminately sifting through the telephony metadata acquired under the program.” All information acquired, he said, “ is subject to strict, court-imposed restrictions on review and handling.”

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