By Jennifer Martinez - 07/31/13 02:59 PM EDT
The National Security Agency is running a surveillance program, named XKeyscore, that allows intelligence analysts to search databases of people's email, online chats and browsing histories without prior authorization, The Guardian reported on Wednesday.
Documents obtained by the newspaper from former government contractor Edward Snowden describe how analysts can obtain Internet data — including the content of email messages, Facebook chats, private messages and search histories — by filling out a simple on-screen form.
In addition, the surveillance program allows analysts to access "ongoing" interception of a person's Internet activity in real-time.
The NSA has come under fire for broadly interpreting surveillance law to collect massive troves of phone and Internet data of Americans. The new revelations about XKeyscore are likely to spur calls from civil libertarians for greater oversight of the intelligence community.
Top intelligence officials and congressional leaders on the intelligence committees though argue that the NSA surveillance programs have thwarted potentially devastating terrorist attacks. They maintain that the spy agency has stayed within its legal bounds.
The leak about XKeyscore comes ahead of a speech that NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander is scheduled to give on Wednesday to the Black Hat hacker conference in Las Vegas.
NSA documents credit the XKeyscore program with capturing 300 terrorists by 2008, according to The Guardian. The program allows analysts to monitor someone's email communications if they have the person's email or IP address alone.
The NSA told The Guardian in a statement that its XKeyscore program is only targeted at "legitimate foreign intelligence targets."
"NSA's activities are focused and specifically deployed against — and only against – legitimate foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements that our leaders need for information necessary to protect our nation and its interests," the spy agency said. "Allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are simply not true."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that he did not know whether members of Congress had been informed about the XKeyscore program, but also declared "some of the claims made in that article are false."
"As we've explained and the intelligence community has explained, allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are false," Carney said during the daily White House press briefing. "Access to all of NSA's analytic tools is limited to only personnel who require access for their assigned tasks, and there are multiple technical, manual and supervisory checks within the system to prevent from those who don't have access from achieving that access."
— Justin Sink contributed