The Obama administration is unable to tell how many times the sensitive anti-terrorism surveillance program has mistakenly monitored emails and phone calls of U.S. citizens. It should be noted that the surveillance system was only meant to keep a close eye on terrorist activities.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Robert Litt, said that the anti-terrorism surveillance program designed to monitor international communication between terrorism suspects has unintentionally collected a huge amount of information of law-abiding U.S. citizens, resulting in a breach of privacy.
“There have been some compliance incidents” involving the “incidental collection” of U.S. citizens' communications, Mr. Litt said, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The incidents that have occurred have been unintentional, accidental and not reflective of any intent to evade the statute."
The law providing broad authority to conduct electronic surveillances expires this December, and the House is going to vote to pass the bill that will reauthorize it for the next five years. The Obama administration is, however, facing resistance from several lawmakers over the privacy concerns.
Litt argued that the program is “not a tool to spy on Americans” and cannot be used to target American citizens or people within the U.S. He also said that it cannot collect any information when all the participants involved in a communication are in the United States.
Litt did not reveal the number of times such an incident has happened. “This is not something that's reasonably possible to estimate with any degree of accuracy,” he said. “In order to do that, we'd have to talk about the details of the collection in a way that would compromise national security.”
Thirteen senators, including 11 Democrats, have pressed for the number of instances the unintentional monitoring has taken place, suggesting that the law contains certain loopholes that have allowed the program to gather intelligence on U.S. citizens. In a letter to the senators, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said that he strongly takes exception to the suggestion that there is a loophole, according to a report by the Associated Press.
The debate began Tuesday, and a vote was scheduled for Wednesday. Litt said that the program has been very successful and the information collected on the terrorists has proved to be extremely helpful. However, he noted that if they try to be more specific and collect only the information on the suspects, there is a possibility that it would signal the targets what information is being collected and they will become more cautious.