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Senators ask NSA to fix 'inaccuracy' in PRISM fact sheet

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NSA Director General Keith Alexander
NSA Director General Keith Alexander

About two weeks ago, after news broke of a long-running government surveillance program called PRISM, the National Security Agency issued a fact sheet on the program. The fact sheet failed to mention what type or how much information is collected through PRISM, but it said that the program is intended to only collect information on those who aren't US citizens. Now two US senators are arguing that the PRISM fact sheet also contains some inaccuracies, and they're asking the NSA to set things straight.

Senators Ron Wyden, of Oregon, and Mark Udall, of Colorado, said in a letter addressed to the NSA's director, General Keith Alexander, that the fact sheet "portrays protections for Americans' privacy being significantly stronger than they actually are" and that "this inaccuracy is significant." In its fact sheet, the NSA said that PRISM operates legally under section "This inaccuracy is significant." 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Section 702, the NSA said, allows the agency to collect information on non-US citizens after a FISA court approves its intelligence gathering plans. However, when a threat is "imminent," the NSA can seek FISA court approval after the surveillance has taken place. The NSA and the Obama administration have argued that FISA oversight helps protect Americans from being spied on by their government.

Wyden and Udall said that they interpret section 702 authority differently than the NSA has. But the senators stop short in their letter of stating what their interpretation of section 702 authority is. Instead, they said that they want the NSA to correct its statement on section 702 authority as soon as possible. "When the NSA makes inaccurate statements about government surveillance and fails to correct the public record, it can decrease public confidence in the NSA's openness and its commitment to protecting Americans' constitutional rights," the letter said.

A dispute over interpretations of FISA law and NSA ability

The duo also said they are unsure how the NSA can prevent itself from mistakenly collecting information on US citizens. In its fact sheet, the NSA said that "any inadvertently acquired communication of or concerning a US person must be promptly destroyed if it is neither relevant to the authorized purpose nor evidence of a crime." Wyden and Udall said that this is "somewhat misleading, in that it implies that the NSA has the ability to determine how many American communications it has collected under section 702, or that the law does not allow the NSA to deliberately search for the records of particular Americans." The senators said that US intelligence agencies have repeatedly told federal lawmakers that they aren't able to identify how many Americans have had their communications reviewed under FISA-approved surveillance programs.

Update: The NSA pulled the fact sheet from its website Tuesday, and in a letter responding to the Senators' request, NSA director General Keith Alexander admitted the sheet "could have more precisely described," the surveillance process, The Washington Post reported. However, an NSA spokesperson told Politico that the removal of the fact sheet from the NSA's website was unrelated to Alexander's letter.