The unauthorized leaks of two top-secret surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) will cause "long-lasting and irreversible harm" to ongoing efforts to safeguard the United States from outside threats, according to the director of national intelligence.
"Discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions," Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper said in a statement late Thursday.
Intelligence operations, like the top-secret NSA programs disclosed in recent reports by the Guardian and Washington Post are designed to "strike the appropriate balance between national security interests and civil liberties and privacy concerns," the U.S. intelligence chief said.
"The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans," Clapper added.
His comments come after both newspapers published details of an NSA program, code named PRISM, to tap directly into the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple and PalTalk.
Reports also surfaced Thursday that NSA and FBI reportedly received secret approval in April to track phone calls on U.S. cell carrier Verizon for a three-month period, ending in July.
The approval was handed down a by special federal court created under the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA), established to approve surveillance on suspected foreign spies working inside the United States.
The data gathered under both NSA programs has proven invaluable to U.S. intelligence to thwart potential threats against the United States, a senior White House official said Thursday.
“Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats," the official added.
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 and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.
But in light of Thursday's disclosures, and the civil liberties concerns surrounding the NSA programs, Clapper disclosed additional details on the FISA authorization of the surveillance programs.
Those details, included in Clapper's statement, provide insight into the court's authority to allow intelligence agencies access to the "business records" of the companies involved.
Both NSA programs were backed by a "robust legal regime in place governing all activities . . . [and] ensures that those activities comply with the Constitution and laws and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties," according to the DNI.
"Only a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed because the vast majority of the data is not responsive to any terrorism-related query," Clapper added.
Weeks before the Verizon phone sweeping program began, Clapper testified before Congress that the NSA does not conduct intelligence on American citizens.
Appearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in March, Clapper denied allegations by panel members the agency conducted electronic surveillance of Americans on U.S. soil.
"Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" committee member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Clapper during the March 12 hearing.
In response, Clapper replied quickly: "No, sir."