WASHINGTON, D.C. — Current and former top U.S. officials on Sunday defended the government’s collection of phone and Internet data following new revelations about the secret surveillance programs, saying the operations were essential in disrupting terrorist plots and did not infringe on Americans’ civil liberties.
In interviews on Sunday talk shows, guests ranging from White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to former Vice President Dick Cheney and former CIA and National Security Agency head Michael Hayden said the government’s reliance on data collection from both Americans and foreign nationals was constitutional and carefully overseen by executive, legislative and court authorities.
All three branches of government, using “aggressive internal checks inside the administration, from inspectors general and routine audits, are overseeing how we do these programs,” McDonough said. He added, “I think that the American people can feel confident that we have those three branches looking.”
The latest reassurances came as a new Washington Post report Sunday described the massive intertwined structure of four major data collection programs that have been set up by the government since the 9/11 attacks. The Post report follows earlier stories based on documents provided by NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Two secret programs, the Post reported in its new disclosures, are aimed at phone and Internet metadata, while two more target contents of phone and Internet communications.
Metadata includes logs and timing of phone calls and lists of Internet communications, but does not include the actual contents of communications. Even without knowing those contents, intelligence officials can learn much from metadata, including likely locations and patterns of behavior.
A previously reported surveillance program aimed at the phone logs and location information of millions of Americans is called Mainway, the Post reported. A second program targeting the Internet contact logs and location information of foreign users is called Marina.
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