Data surveillance in the U.S.: necessary or 'obscenely outrageous'?

(CNN) -- Is the U.S. government indiscriminately monitoring your phone calls or e-mails? It says no.

But reports in two newspapers this week claim that intelligence agencies have collected vast amounts of data from U.S. phone and Internet companies.

The stories have reopened the impassioned debate over how much intelligence is necessary to fight terrorism and when it amounts to dangerous government overreach.

A British newspaper, the Guardian, published on Wednesday a top secret order from an intelligence court that requires telephone giant Verizon to hand over "metadata" to the FBI.

Under the order, the agency is collecting records of every call made by Verizon Business Network Services customers in the United States between April 25 and July 19, the Guardian reported. But it did not listen in on the calls, the paper said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the order is a standard three-month renewal of a program that has been under way for years, and observers said similar orders undoubtedly are in effect for other companies.

A day later, the same paper and the Washington Post published reports detailing allegations based on an apparent leak from the National Security Agency. They said that the NSA has access to the central servers of nine tech giants including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.

The Post reported that the alleged data mining program -- called PRISM -- underwent "exponential growth" after its founding in 2007. It has become the leading source of raw material for the NSA, the secretive U.S. intelligence operation that monitors electronic communications, the newspaper said.

Denial and defense

Several tech giants whose servers were reportedly ensnared in the program denied any knowledge of it Thursday.

National Intelligence Director James Clapper blasted the report on the collection of telephone information, saying it "omits key information" regarding "safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties."

The collection of the information was cleared by a judge for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a special judicial branch set up as part of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Clapper said in a written statement.

The court operates in secrecy, something civil rights groups have complained about.

Congress was briefed on the operation, which is legal under the Patriot Act. Investigators don't look at the vast majority of data because it is not terror related, Clapper said. The court is required to review the program every 90 days.

To help re-establish public trust, the intelligence chief has ordered "certain information related to the 'business records'" to be declassified and published.

Though he did not directly acknowledge PRISM's existence, Clapper cited Section 702 of FISA, which states that the data collection applies only to "non-U.S. persons located outside the United States."

While he made no mention of data mining, Clapper defended the American intelligence effort generally, saying, "Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats."

Clapper also called out the person or people behind "the unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program," saying such apparent leaks are "reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans."

'Beyond Orwellian'

The reports stoked sentiments for and against the intelligence gathering methods, with politicians on both sides of the aisle either attacking or defending them.

"Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?" former Democratic Vice President Al Gore wrote on Twitter.

Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin, who co-authored the Patriot Act, was "extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation of the act."

"These reports are deeply concerning and raise questions about whether our constitutional rights are secure," he wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder, who is to hold a classified briefing on the articles with the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Necessary measures

Opinions were also strong on the other side of the debate.

Conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, concurred with Feinstein, a California liberal, that the methods are necessary to prevent terrorism.

"Terrorists will come after us if they can," Feinstein said, "and the only thing that we have to deter this is good intelligence to understand that a plot has been hatched and to get there before they get to us."

Graham said that as a Verizon customer, "it doesn't bother me one bit for the National Security Agency to have my phone number."

When Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Sen. Barbara Mikulski read the news Thursday morning, the Maryland Democrat said, "It was like, 'Oh, God, not one more thing ... where we're trying to protect America and then it looks like we're spying.'"

Civil rights groups were appalled.

"There is no indication that this order to Verizon was unique or novel," said the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which fights to protect privacy.

"It is very likely that business records orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company, meaning that, if you make calls in the United States, the NSA has those records."

The EFF said that the practice has been going on for seven years.

In 2006, during the administration of President George W. Bush Jr., it was revealed that the NSA was secretly collecting telephone records as part of an effort to root out potential terror plots.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the allegation "beyond Orwellian (in allowing) basic democratic rights (to be) surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies."

The Center for Constitutional Rights blasted it as "the broadest surveillance order to ever ... issued: It requires no level of suspicion."

Obama takes heat

The reports have increased scrutiny of President Obama's record on balancing citizens' right to privacy and the government's efforts to combat terrorism.

Days after taking office in 2009, Obama vowed, "Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency." But on Thursday, the left-leaning Huffington Post on its home page conflated an image of Obama with one of his predecessor, Bush, in a move to criticize the secret surveillance both administrations have been accused of.

A New York Times editorial said "the administration has now lost all credibility" when it comes to overreaching in the name of fighting terrorism.