Secret Court Renews NSA's Phone Records Collection

Friday, 19 Jul 2013 07:03 PM

By Todd Beamon

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The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court gave the green light to the Obama administration by recertifying a court order allowing the NSA to collect telephone records in bulk on millions of Verizon customers, the White House said Friday.

The court order was to expire at 5 p.m. Friday.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said its authority to maintain the program expired July 19 and the government sought and received a renewal from the secret surveillance court.

The FISA Court in Washington oversees U.S. surveillance programs. It consists of 11 federal judges, all whom have been appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

The White House disclosed the FISA's stamp of renewed approval of the court order in an effort at greater transparency after former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the National Security Agency's secret U.S. surveillance programs to the media.

But bipartisan criticism continues to mount on Capitol Hill over the NSA's collection and stockpiling of millions of Americans' phone records without individual warrants or suspicions of connections to terrorism.

"By renewing the FISA court order, the Obama administration would reconfirm its support for the dragnet collection of telephone metadata, despite public outcry," Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, told The Guardian newspaper of London.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, said the White House should have let the Verizon order expire.

"This type of secret bulk-data collection is an outrageous breach of Americans' privacy," he also told The Guardian. "If the administration feels this program is vital to our national security, it should declassify the secret court interpretations that justify broad data collection so Congress and the American public can debate it in the light of day."

Judge Roger Vinson, until recently a member of the FISA Court, approved the order for "all call-data records or telephony metadata" from customers of Verizon Business Services on April 25, The Guardian reports.

The court has reauthorized the bulk phone records collection, in secret, every 90 days for about seven years.

At least two other major telecoms, AT&T and Sprint, have reportedly received similar orders. The dates of their expirations are unclear, The Guardian reports.

Administration and intelligence officials describe the collection of the phone records — detailing telephone numbers dialed, duration of the calls, and the times they occurred — as critical to uncovering terrorist plots.

While the court orders allow the NSA to collect and store tens if not hundreds of millions of American phone records, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander has cited the phone records collection as contributing to the discovery of about 10 domestic terrorism plots.

Officials argue that American liberties are protected because court criteria forbids the searches of the phone-records database, absent "reasonable articulable facts," The Guardian reports, although NSA officials decide themselves when those criteria are met.

The agency claims to have searched through the database fewer than 300 times in 2012, The Guardian reports.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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