Weeks before the National Security Agency (NSA) began a massive phone sweeping operation on U.S. cellular provider Verizon, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress the agency does not conduct intelligence on American citizens.
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Clapper denied allegations by panel members the NSA conducted electronic surveillance of Americans on U.S. soil.
In response, Clapper replied quickly: "No, sir."
"There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect [intelligence on Americans], but not wittingly," the U.S. intelligence chief told Wyden and the rest of the committee.
That said, "particularly in the case of NSA and CIA, there are structures against tracking American citizens in the United States for foreign intelligence purposes," Clapper added.
Both agencies are focused on foreign intelligence collection, "and that's what those agencies are set up to do," he added.
Conducting surveillance on Americans inside U.S. borders is something "they do not engage in," the intelligence chief added.
Intelligence collection by the CIA, the NSA or other agencies can be done inside the United States, but only if a special court created under the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) approves the operation.
FISA established the special federal court to approve surveillance on suspected foreign spies working inside the United States.
However, the FISA court reportedly issued a secret ruling in April, allowing the NSA to conduct phone sweeps of all cellphones running on the Verizon network.
The ruling came weeks after Clapper testified before the Senate intelligence panel.
On Thursday, Clapper clarified his remarks during the March hearing, telling the National Journal his comments were referring to NSA or other intelligence agencies intentionally reviewing e-mails and other electronic communications.
"What I said was, 'the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mails.' I stand by that," Clapper said.
But the April FISA ruling allowed the NSA and the FBI to collect the Verizon data from a three-month period between May and July, according to The Guardian newspaper.
The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday said senators were informed of the administration’s sweeping surveillance practices, which they said have been going on since 2007.
Those programs were conducted under the authority granted by the Patriot Act and the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004.
“Everyone’s been aware of it for years, every member of the Senate,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“There have been approximately 100 plots and also arrests made since 2009 by the FBI,” committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Thursday.
“I do not know to what extent metadata was used or if it was used, but I do know this, gentlemen, that terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence," she added.
In a statement released on Thursday, Feinstein clarified the FISA ruling only allowed NSA to track the length of a particular call and the number of who the call was made to.
"This law does not allow the government to listen in on the content of a phone call," Feinstein said in the statement.
“The intelligence community has successfully used FISA authorities to identify terrorists and those with whom they communicate, and this intelligence has helped protect the nation," according to Feinstein.
"The threat from terrorism remains very real and these lawful intelligence activities must continue, with the careful oversight of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government," she added.
--story updated at 4:45pm