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US spy chief defends domestic surveillance

WASHINGTON — United States spy chief James Clapper has strongly defended government surveillance programmes after revelations of phone records being collected and Internet servers being tapped.

He said disclosure of a secret court document on phone record collection threatened “irreversible harm”.

Revelations of an alleged programme to tap into servers of nine Internet firms were “reprehensible”, he said.

Internet firms deny giving government agents access to their servers.

The director of US national intelligence said he wanted to reassure Americans that the intelligence community was committed to respecting their civil liberties and privacy.

He issued a strong-worded statement late on Thursday, after the UK’s Guardian newspaper said a secret court order had required phone company Verizon to hand over its records to the National Security Agency on an “ongoing daily basis”.

That report was followed by revelations in both the Washington Post and Guardian that US agencies tapped directly into the servers of nine Internet firms to track people in a programme known as Prism.

The reports about Prism will raise fresh questions about how far the US government should encroach on citizens’ privacy in the interests of national security.

The NSA confirmed that it had been secretly collecting millions of phone records. But Clapper said the “unauthorised disclosure… threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation”.

The article omitted “key information” about the use of the records “to prevent terrorist attacks and the numerous safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties”.

He said reports about Prism contained “numerous inaccuracies”. While admitting the government collected communications from Internet firms, he said the policy only targets “non-US persons”. (BBC)

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