US spy agency seeks criminal probe into leaks linked to Prism surveillance programme

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A United States intelligence agency requested a criminal probe on Saturday into the leak of highly classified information about secret surveillance programmes run by the National Security Agency (NSA), a spokesman for the intelligence chief's office said.

Confirmation that the NSA filed a "crimes report" came a few hours after the nation's spy chief, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper launched an aggressive defence of a secret government data collection programme.

Mr Clapper blasted what he called "reckless disclosures" of a highly classified spy agency project code-named Prism.

It was not known how broad a leaks investigation was requested by the super-secret NSA, but Mr Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Mr Clapper's office, said a "crimes report has been filed".

The report goes to the Justice Department, which has established procedures for determining whether an investigation is warranted. Prosecutors do not accept all requests, but they have brought a series of high-profile leak investigations under President Barack Obama.

US officials said the NSA leaks were so astonishing they expected the Justice Department to take the case.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

In a statement earlier on Saturday, Mr Clapper acknowledged Prism's existence by name for the first time and said it had been mischaracterised by the media. The project was legal, not aimed at US citizens and had thwarted threats against the country, he said.

"Over the last week we have seen reckless disclosures of intelligence community measures used to keep Americans safe,"Mr Clapper said in a statement.

He said the surveillance activities reported in the Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper were lawful and conducted under authorities approved by Congress. "Significant misimpressions" have resulted from recent articles, he said.