The National Security Agency (NSA) says it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of documents related to a once-clandestine surveillance program exposed by a former government contractor nearly two years ago.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the author of this story, the NSA says it cannot confirm the existence of documents related to “PRISM,” a once-secret spy program that purported to allow NSA, FBI and other government officials unprecedented access to the personal data of American and non-American technology users.
PRISM, which was exposed in news reports filed by The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers in June 2013, claims to give the NSA unprecedented and direct access to the data of nine American tech companies. Those companies — Apple, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Skype (now part of Microsoft), YouTube (now part of Google), Facebook and Paltalk — were said to have handed over information to a little-known intelligence agency within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) known as the Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU). That information was requested by, and later given to, NSA agents for various investigations.
Read more: U.S. Government Flip-Flops on Civil Liberties, Privacy
In its reporting, both the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers published a handful of slides purporting to be from an April 2013 PowerPoint presentation titled “PRISM / US-948XN,” with the subtitle “The SIGAD Used Most in NSA Reporting.” “SIGAD” is an acronym for “Signals Intelligence Activity Director,” which is a serial number or code assigned to an intelligence intercept station or facility.
Shortly after the newspaper reports, the author of this story filed a Freedom of Information Act seeking “the entire 41-slide presentation” related to the PRISM program. The request was received by the office on June 10, 2013, according to a receipt letter. Two years later, and after several back-and-forth e-mails with the NSA, the intelligence agency now says it won’t confirm or deny the existence documents associated with the program, saying the material that may or may not exist “is a currently and properly classified matter” in accordance with various executive orders and laws.
“Your request seeks records about alleged NSA intelligence activities and/or programs,” the FOIA denial letter dated May 15 of this year read. “However, your request appears to be premised on media reports that purport to describe documents originating from the NSA or that discuss alleged NSA intelligence activities and programs. Thus, we cannot acknowledge the existence or non-existence of specific documents … nor can we acknowledge the accuracy or inaccuracy of media reports about alleged NSA activities, to include any media publication of documents purported to be originated by NSA.”
Read more: Before Snowden Leaks, NSA Nearly Axed Phone Data Collection Program
The request filed by the author of this story did not mention news reports about PRISM or the documents associated with the program.
The NSA’s decision not to confirm the existence of PRISM-related documents comes nearly two years after the Director of National Intelligence openly acknowledge the program’s existence in a three-page publicly accessible “fact sheet” released online.
“PRISM is not an undisclosed collection or data mining program,” the fact sheet released in June 2013 says. “It is an internal government computer system used to facilitate the government’s statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers under court supervision, as authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act [FISA].”
The DNI denied reports that under PRISM the NSA and other agencies have “direct” access to the servers of technology companies, instead saying those companies are required to hand over data to federal investigators “when they are lawfully required to do so.”
“All such information is obtained with FISA Court approval and with the knowledge of the provider based upon a written directive from the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence,” the fact sheet read.
According to information de-classified by the DNI in November 2013, the secretive FISA Court received hundreds of surveillance requests from government agencies between 2005 and 2011. The court modified 40 requests and denied none of them.