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Tech companies deny providing direct access to NSA through PRISM

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"Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats," he said in a statement circulated via e-mail by the White House.

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Clapper also said that any telephone data collected is subject to court restrictions.

"The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization," he said. The program "cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen" or anyone located within the United States, Clapper said.

The Post said the NSA operation, which began in 2007, has grown exponentially and become the most prolific contributor to the president's daily intelligence briefing, providing raw material for almost one in seven intelligence reports. The NSA runs computer centers for analyzing huge databases.

Sept. 11

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U.S. agencies have vastly expanded surveillance efforts since 2001 in a bid to avoid a repeat of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The Bush administration started the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program under which agencies began secret electronic surveillance on U.S. phone calls and e-mails without court warrants.

In 2008, Congress passed a law codifying parts of the program and authorizing intelligence agencies to get broad electronic surveillance orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

That law, updating the more than three-decade-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, lets intelligence agencies monitor the e-mail, Internet activity and phone calls of non-U.S. citizens reasonably believed to be located outside the U.S. and involved in terrorist activities or other crimes. Congress voted last year to extend it until the end of 2017.

'Ongoing' Collection

The telephone surveillance, reported by the Guardian, was sought by the FBI and approved by the court on April 25. It requires Verizon to provide the NSA with information about calls inside the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries on a daily and "ongoing" basis.

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