AP: Spy program gathered Americans' Internet records

Jun. 27, 2013 @ 07:40 PM

The Obama administration gathered U.S. citizens' Internet data until 2011, continuing a spying program started under President George W. Bush that revealed whom Americans exchanged emails with and the Internet Protocol address of their computer, documents disclosed Thursday show.

The National Security Agency ended the program that collected email logs and timing, but not content, in 2011 because it decided it didn't effectively stop terrorist plots, according to the NSA's director, Gen. Keith Alexander, who also heads the U.S. Cyber Command. He said all data was purged in 2011.

Britain's Guardian newspaper on Thursday released documents detailing the collection, though the program was also described earlier this month by The Washington Post.

The latest revelation follows previous leaks from ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who is presumed hiding at a Moscow airport transit area, waiting to hear whether Ecuador, Iceland or another country might grant him asylum. He fled Hong Kong over the weekend and flew to Russia after being charged with violating American espionage laws.

The collection appears similar to the gathering of U.S. phone records, and seems to overlap with the Prism surveillance program of foreigners on U.S. Internet servers, both revealed by Snowden. U.S. officials have said the phone records can only be checked for numbers dialed by a terrorist suspect overseas. According to the documents published by The Guardian on Thursday, the Internet records show whom they exchanged emails with and the specific numeric address assigned to a computer connected to the Internet, known as the IP, or Internet Protocol, address.

The program, described in a top secret draft report from the NSA inspector general, described the efforts of then-NSA Director Gen. Mike Hayden to fill gaps in intelligence gathering after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. One NSA officer quoted in the report described "NSA standing at the U.S. border looking outward for foreign threats" and "the FBI looking within the United States for domestic threats. But no one was looking at the foreign threats coming into the United States. That was the huge gap that NSA wanted to cover."

The draft added that the sweeping phone and Internet data-gathering programs were meant to speed up the process of surveillance of a terrorist suspect overseas, because "the average wait time was between four and six weeks" to get a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. "Terrorists could have changed their telephone numbers or Internet addresses" before the NSA received permission to spy on them on U.S.-based phone or Internet systems.

Alexander said at a Baltimore conference on cybersecurity that the NSA decided to kill the Internet data gathering program because "it wasn't meeting what we needed and we thought we could better protect civil liberties and privacy by doing away with it."

He said the program was conducted under provisions of the Patriot Act, and that NSA leaders went to the Obama administration and Congress with the recommendation to shut it down.

Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said the program has not resumed.