Top U.S. intelligence officials denied a blockbuster Reuters report claiming Yahoo built special software to scan emails to hundreds of millions of accounts, while a subsequent New York Times report claims the snooping was limited to suspected members of a terrorist organization.

“That would be illegal. We don’t do that, and no court would ever grant us the authority to do that. We have to make a specific case. And what the court grants is specific authority for a specific period of time for a specific purpose,” said Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, speaking at the Cyber Security Summit at Massachusetts Institute of Technology yesterday.

“We have a legal framework in this nation that enables the government … for specific reasons, under specific conditions, to make a case before a judge in which we’re able to show a judge we have reason to believe that there is threat here to the United States associated with specific individuals and a judge grants, simplistically, authority for a specific purpose for a specific period of time to access data.”

On Tuesday, Reuters reported Yahoo had built custom software for the U.S. government that scanned incoming emails to millions of accounts.

“I’ve read this real quickly and I thought, well, this is a little speculative,” Rogers said.

In a statement, Yahoo called the story “misleading.”

After Rogers spoke yesterday, The New York Times, citing sources, reported the order from the Justice Department required Yahoo to search for a “digital signature” used by a state-sponsored terrorist organization.

The Times said Yahoo modified its existing spam, virus and child pornography filter to look for messages with the digital signature.

According to the report, the search was unusual in that every email was scanned for the specific signature, rather than searching for a specific user’s account. The Justice Department was able to convince a judge that signature was unique to the terrorist group. The search is no longer ongoing, the Times said.

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