After rushing to declassify some carefully selected descriptions of the programs, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, conceded for the first time that the Prism program existed. But in a statement, after denouncing the leak of the data to The Guardian and The Washington Post, Mr. Clapper insisted it was “not an undisclosed collection or data mining program.” Instead, he said it was a computer system to “facilitate” the collection of foreign intelligence that had been authorized by Congress.
Mr. Clapper also insisted that the government “does not unilaterally obtain information from the servers” of telephone and Internet providers, saying that information is turned over only under court order, when there is a “documented, foreign intelligence purpose for acquisition” of the data.
He appeared to be attempting to push back against early reports that the government had direct access to the huge computer servers at Google, Microsoft, Facebook and similar companies. Those firms have denied they give the government a “back door” to their systems.
But they acknowledge handing over material when ordered to do so by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, though they have not described the mechanism for complying with those orders. It appears the companies use some kind of electronic drop box, in which they place the material, so that the government can then harvest the information.
The national intelligence director’s rare Saturday statement was notable for what it omitted: any description of other means the government may use to intercept Internet information directly from fiber optic cables or satellite systems even before or after it reaches those Internet companies.
A new report in The Guardian, published online on Saturday, cited another document that showed that in March 2013 there were 97 billion pieces of data collected from networks worldwide; about 14 percent of it was from Iran, much was from Pakistan and about 3 percent came from inside the United States, though some of that may have been foreign data traffic routed through American-based servers.
Meanwhile, senior Obama administration officials, including the directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and of national intelligence, have held 13 classified hearings and briefings for members of Congress since 2009 to explain the broad authority they say they have to sweep up electronic records for national security purposes, a senior administration official said Saturday.
The administration, by disclosing the briefings, sought to push back on claims by Democrats and Republicans in Congress that they were either not aware of programs to mine vast amounts of Internet data and business telephone records or were insufficiently briefed on the details.
Lawmakers said that what they knew was vague and broad — and that strict rules of classification prevented them from truly debating the programs or conducting proper oversight.
In separate but identical letters sent on Oct. 19, 2011, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich told two of Congress’s most outspoken critics of the efforts, Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, both Democrats, that in December 2009 and February 2011 the Justice Department and intelligence agencies provided a classified document to Congress describing the surveillance efforts in detail.
The letter said the House and Senate Intelligence Committees had been briefed “on these operations multiple times and have had access to copies of the classified” orders and opinions of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Members of the committee were invited to share the information with other lawmakers.
Broader briefings were held in 2011 before the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 law that authorized much of the surveillance.