Alex Witt   |  June 16, 2013

New details emerge on NSA phone surveillance

NBC's Michael Isikoff has more on the extent of the government's phone surveillance program amid some public skepticism.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> national news investigative correspondent michael isikoff . michael , you spoke with intelligence officials. what new information did you learn about just how many phone calls were collected?

>> well, this telephone met adata collection which we've just learned about in the last couple weeks impacts millions of callers and you can do the arithmetic on how many phone calls you make in a year and it might add up to hundreds of millions of records of phone calls . what u.s. officials, intelligence officials are trying to do now to try to bolster public support for this program is show the controls on it. and they put out a statement just yesterday, late yesterday, suggesting that the actual times that they've gone into the database to query those records of phone calls is very limited, are less than 300 last year, they said, only after they got specific information that the -- that the phone number was linked to some specific foreign terrorist organization . now, it's very hard to evaluate that in a vacuum. what we're getting is selective disclosure at this point. they are saying that there are very strict controls on this, it's all approved by the foreign intelligence surveillance court , but we do know as a result of the disclosures that that foreign intelligence court has at times had problems with the way the national -- the intelligence community is collecting this information, how it's using it, and they have found instances of what has been called unreasonable search and seizure under the fourth amendment. in other words, illegal surveillance. we have not seen the details on that. so what we got is a bit of a public relations war now where the intelligence community is making selective disclosures to bolster public support but far from complete disclosure in order to have a full public debate about this.

>> and michael , we learned more about one terror plot officials said was thwarted by collecting phone information. what can you tell us about that?

>> yeah, this is the zazi plot that intelligence officials have talked about, and they released some more details on that in this statement yesterday, that zazi , the guy who was a colorado extremist and headed for new york to blow up the new york subways. the other program in which they do get content of internet e-mails and phone calls did disclose links between zazi and al qaeda in pakistan. they then getting the zazi -- once they started looking at zazi , they go back into the telephone meta data mass collection and see somebody he's communicating with, that gets them a phone number and they were able to arrest one of his co-conspirators. again, a lot of questions about exactly how they did that and whether they could have gotten it through other means. this they gotten information about zazi could they have then goent a search warrant to get the same data. did they need the mass collection? that's one of the many questions about this program that have yet to be answered.

>> and michael , quickly, some are saying that the phone and internet operations stopped dozen of potential terror plots. do we know if that's true?

>> that's the assertion. they have said in the statement yesterday that all they could talk about in detail now is the zazi plot, that to disclose others could disclose operational details that might give the terrorists some advantage here. i know that senator feinstein from the intelligence committee , the chairman is pushing the intelligence committee to release more because she's bought into this program, she believes in it, she wants more public disclosure. whether we get it or not we'll have to wait and see in the next few days.