"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," U.S. President Barack Obama said in June 2013.
Except, that's not strictly true.
The U.S. National Security Agency used a "backdoor" in surveillance laws to conduct warrantless searches on American call and email data, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted in a letter to a senior politician.
In a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) seen by The Guardian, Clapper admitted: "There have been queries, using U.S. person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence targeting non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States."
"These queries were performed pursuant to minimization procedures approved by the FISA court and consistent with the statute and the fourth amendment," Clapper continued.
But he did not state how many searches, or how many "U.S. persons" were affected by the searches, which were conducted through the controversial PRISM and Upstream programs.
This is the first time Clapper has admitted publicly the NSA conducted such searches by exploiting a loophole in surveillance law, despite earlier documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden that the U.S. intelligence agency claiming that this was the case.
Despite protected by the Fourth Amendment, which prevents unwarranted searches and seizures, the loophole allowed the NSA to acquire intelligence on Americans from 2011 onwards, when it was first authorized by Washington's secret surveillance panel, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
The surveillance dragnet may sweep up any communications Americans may have with foreign nationals, but the authority to search that information appeared to be in conflict with what U.S. officials and the White House were saying on the record at the time.