The Washington Post and Guardian let a genie out of a bottle, and now the Obama administration's national security boss is making an effort to cram it back in.
Via a statement Saturday, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper ripped into the media for publishing classified documents relating to the Prism surveillance program. Clapper assailed "reckless disclosures of intelligence community measures used to keep Americans safe," and also released a two-plus page explainer [PDF] on Prism, noting it's not "an undisclosed collection or data mining program" that targets American citizens but rather a perfectly legal "internal government computer system" used for the authorized collection of foreign intelligence under court supervision.
"In a rush to publish, media outlets have not given the full context—including the extent to which these programs are overseen by all three branches of government—to these effective tools," wrote Clapper in the statement. He goes on to write that "significant misimpressions" have resulted from Prism media coverage, but that he can't correct inaccuracies without revealing classified information. From there, he explains his declassified explainer should "help dispel some of the myths and add necessary context to what has been published."
In the declassified material, Clapper explains that Prism is authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and that the government doesn't "unilaterally obtain information from the servers of U.S. electronic communication service providers." All information is collected with FISA court approval, he writes, and with the knowledge of service providers following a written directive from the Attorney General and Director of National Intelligence (a post, lest we forget, that's currently held by Clapper himself).
This statement would seem to refute media reports that Prism allows for direct, real-time collection of user data from the biggest names in technology, including Google, Facebook, Apple and a who's who of others. Indeed, Clapper's latest communique only further confuses media speculation on exactly how Prism works, and the levels of complicity among tech companies, which have issued statements denying they had any prior knowledge of the Prism program.