The U.S. National Security Agency is facing new accusations that it secretly broke into communication networks used by Internet giants Google and Yahoo to move data around the world.
In a report published Wednesday, The Washington Post said it learned of the classified NSA program from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and from interviews with "knowledgeable officials."
The report said the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ run a project called MUSCULAR, which taps into fiber-optic cables carrying data between global facilities of Google and Yahoo. It said that allows the spying agencies to copy entire data flows, including the content of text, audio and video files.
Google and Yahoo issued statements saying they have not authorized the alleged tapping of their communication links.
The NSA already requests and obtains data from U.S. Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo by seeking court orders through a program called PRISM.
NSA chief General Keith Alexander said Wednesday the spy agency does not enter Google and Yahoo servers. Speaking to reporters at a Washington conference, he said the NSA gains access to data by "court order."
Addressing a U.S. congressional panel Tuesday, Alexander said the NSA's massive worldwide collection of telephone and Internet data stopped 13 terrorist plots in the United States and 25 plots in Europe in recent years.
The Washington Post said infiltrating the companies' networks without a court order within the United States would be illegal, and that the NSA has been tapping into parts of those networks located overseas, where they face less oversight and fewer restrictions.
The report said a top secret document dated Jan. 9, 2013 shows the NSA collected 181 million data files from Google and Yahoo in the preceding 30 days and sent them to the agency's headquarters near Washington.
In a statement, the NSA rejected suggestions in the Washington Post report that it has found a way to skirt U.S. laws, saying "the assertion that we collect vast quantities of U.S. people' data from this type of collection is also not true."
The new allegations of NSA activity follow a series of recent media revelations of U.S. surveillance activities targeting international leaders and institutions.
Key German and U.S. national security officials were meeting in Washington on Wednesday to discuss German concerns about alleged U.S. tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone.
The Obama administration said last week it is not listening in on Merkel's calls and will not in the future, but brushed off questions about whether it monitored her calls in the past, possibly as far back as 2002, three years before she became the German leader.
Chancellor Merkel voiced a personal protest about suspected U.S. surveillance of her mobile phone last week in a call to President Barack Obama, saying such snooping among friends cannot be condoned.
Germany wants the United States and France to agree to a "no spying" deal among the allies by the end of 2013.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament's civil liberties committee is continuing a visit to Washington, where the group is set to discuss the impact the spying scandal has had on European citizens.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.