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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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July 31st, 2013
05:49 PM ET

Report: NSA can indeed monitor you online

Americans have been told, over and over again, that the National Security Agency is not tracking them online, or looking at the contents of their e-mails. But apparently it can, according to a new report by Glenn Greenwald for The Guardian newspaper, using more information from stranded former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The report claims that the NSA has a program called XKeyscore that stores virtually all of a user's online activity in a database.

It is not supposed to be used domestically on Americans – but The Guardian says it could be, without any prior warrant necessary.

Private correspondence, political views, health records – all of it could be in a database, and a snap to search.

The news of XKeyscore broke just as senators grilled some of the nation's top intelligence officials about why they need such potentially invasive programs to keep Americans safe.

"The phone records of all of us in this room, all of us in this room, reside in a NSA database. I've said repeatedly just because we have the ability to collect huge amounts of data does not mean we should be doing so," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said at the hearing.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee tried to understand how the NSA could know so much about private citizens, and still go unchecked by those elected to represent Americans.

"The government is already collecting data on millions of innocent Americans on a daily basis, based on a secret legal interpretation of a statute that does not on its face appear to authorize this kind of bulk collection. So what is going to be next? When's enough is enough?" said Leahy.

Just ten minutes prior to this moment in the hearing, Greenwald broke the latest NSA story with this catchy headline: "NSA tool collects nearly everything a user does on the internet." It's called XKeyscore.

"The key to XKeyscore is that it's a program used by the NSA to collect all internet activity, everything they can collect, store it, and then allow their analysts – low-level analysts with access to terminals – to search whatever it is they want and find out what your e-mails say, what internet sites you visited, what Google search terms you've entered, and pretty much anything else that you do on the internet," said Greenwald. 

"It's an all purpose spying device that really has no real limits," said Greenwald.

XKeyscore, it seems, may be the very type of tool Director of National Intelligence James Clapper failed to disclose during his congressional testimony in March.

Asked then if the NSA collects information on Americans, Clapper said, "No, not wittingly."

But that as clapper later admitted wasn't true.

"Lying to the Senate is every bit as much of a crime and a felony as anything Mr. Snowden is accused of doing, and so we ought to think about as a nation whether or not we're comfortable allowing our highest political officials to break the law, and not only not be prosecuted, but not lose their job," said Greenwald.

Trying to play catch up in transparency, Clapper's office released its own set of stunning documents Wednesday.

Among them, a 2011 classified congressional briefing paper outlining the patriot act provision allowing for an "early warning system" involving logging all domestic e-mails and phone conversations of Americans.

The briefing paper stated that, "only a tiny fraction of such records are ever viewed by NSA intelligence analysts."

But, and here's where Greenwald's story Wednesday is important - the question is not whether they are viewed as an official policy, but if they can be.

Snowden told Greenwald that they can be.

"I, sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone," Snowden said in an interview with The Guardian.

Members and supporters of the national security apparatus disputed that.

"Edward Snowden has been completely vindicated by the documents and by the disclosures, as a completely honest whistleblower, one of the most significant whistleblowers in American history," said Greenwald.

Meanwhile Snowden remains a man without a country, spending his 39th day in the Moscow airport as the NSA continues to try to explain how there are controls – even as Snowden's existence proves there quite obviously are not.

Asked by Sen. Leahy who did the background check for Snowden, the deputy director of the NSA John Inglis said, "There are checks at multiple levels, there are checks in terms of what an individual might be doing at any moment in time."

When Leahy stated those checks "obviously failed," Inglis acknowledged, "In this case, I think we can say they failed, but we don't yet know where."

The NSA issued a statement in response to The Guardian's report on XKeyscore, saying in part, "The implication that nsa's collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false. 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."

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