WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration maintains it is unable to say how many times one of the government's most politically sensitive anti-terrorism surveillance programs — which is up for renewal this week on Capitol Hill — has inadvertently gathered intelligence about U.S. citizens.
In a briefing for reporters on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Tuesday that the program designed to monitor international communications by terrorist suspects has collected an extraordinary amount of valuable intelligence overseas about foreign terrorist suspects while simultaneously protecting civil liberties of Americans.
Originated by the George W. Bush administration, the program was publicly disclosed by The New York Times in 2005 and was restructured in 2008 to provide oversight by a secret federal court and with additional oversight from Congress.
Civil liberties groups and some members of Congress have expressed concern that the government may be reviewing the emails and phone calls of law-abiding Americans in the U.S. who are at the other end of communications with foreign terrorist suspects being monitored abroad.
The House began debating renewal of the program Tuesday and expected to vote Wednesday. A hold has been placed on the legislation in the Senate by one of the program's critics, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
The program "is not a tool for spying on Americans," said Robert Litt, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Litt said the program cannot be used to target American citizens and cannot be used to target people within the U.S. In addition, it cannot be used to collect the contents of any communication when all the participants are in the United States, said the ODNI's general counsel.
There has never been any intentional effort to bypass restrictions, he added.
At Tuesday's news briefing, reporters repeatedly pressed Litt on how many times there had been incidental collections of intelligence on Americans.
Litt pointed out that the National Security Agency, the ODNI and independent inspectors general for each office have said information is not readily available on the number of instances involving unintentional monitoring of U.S. citizens.