The Obama administration is collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S.-based Verizon Communications Inc. customers, relying on a secret court order obtained under a George W. Bush administration policy that sparked a national controversy, the Guardian newspaper reported.
An administration official today defended such information collection as a “critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.” The U.K. newspaper reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was granted a court order in April requiring Verizon to provide the National Security Agency with information about calls inside the U.S. ande between the U.S. and other countries on a daily and “ongoing” basis.
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In an e-mailed statement, the official -- who wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss classified information and spoke on condition of anonymity -- didn’t dispute the Guardian report and said all three branches of the government are involved “reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”
The April 25 order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court covers telephone numbers as well as the location and duration of calls, according to the Guardian, which said it had obtained a copy of the document and published it on its website. The order doesn’t apply to the content of customers’ conversations and expires on July 19, the newspaper said.
News of the order emerged as President Barack Obama’s administration is being challenged over its regard for civil liberties. The Justice Department, as part of its inquiries into leaks of national-security information, has obtained search warrants for telephone records of journalists from the Associated Press and Fox News, prompting protests from U.S. lawmakers and media-advocacy groups.
The disclosure may put further pressure on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who is under fire for targeting reporters in the crackdown on leaks. It also may weigh on the nomination of Obama’s choice as the next FBI director, James B. Comey.
Privacy-rights advocates issued swift protests upon learning of the Guardian report, calling the data collection an intrusion on millions of innocent Americans. The American Civil Liberties Union called for the Obama administration to halt the program and disclose its scope and asked Congress to investigate.
“It is beyond Orwellian,” Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. It shows “the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies.”
It wasn’t clear whether the NSA is pursuing similar surveillance through other U.S. telecommunications companies.
Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman, and Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden declined to comment.
The Verizon data-collection order was signed 10 days after the Boston Marathon bombing killed three people and injured more than 260 in the highest-profile terrorist incident on U.S. soil since 2001. U.S. agencies vastly expanded surveillance efforts during the past 12 years in a bid to avoid a repeat of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
President George W. Bush’s administration began the so- called Terrorist Surveillance Program in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with intelligence agencies secretly conducting electronic surveillance on U.S. phone calls and e- mails without court warrants.
Congress passed a law in 2008 codifying parts of the program and allowing intelligence agencies to get broad electronic surveillance orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
That law, updating the more than three-decade-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, lets intelligence agencies monitor the e-mail, Internet activity and phone calls of non- U.S. citizens reasonably believed to be located outside the U.S. and involved in terrorist activities or other crimes. Congress voted last year to extend it until the end of 2017.
“We’ve been saying for over a decade that the law is incredibly broad and could be interpreted to allow something like this, but people didn’t believe it,” said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel of the ACLU. “Now that there is hard proof, hopefully this will force Congress to take a look at it.”
In 2012, there were 212 such FISA orders, known as “business records requests,” according to a letter from the Justice Department to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The letter doesn’t specify the targets or scope of the requests.
“Once a year they send a report to Congress that says here’s how many orders we did, here’s how many wiretaps, here’s how many national security letters,” Richardson said.
The Guardian report marks the first time since broad surveillance was authorized in 2008 that an unredacted order has come to light, Richardson said.
“It confirms the worst fears that these tools are not being used in a targeted manner just against suspected terrorists and spies,” she said
Richardson said she is concerned that the NSA is obtaining orders covering all major U.S. telephone providers and Internet as well as phone data.
The disclosure has the potential to spiral into controversy for U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, as the NSA is part of the Pentagon. It may also emerge as an issue for the president’s incoming national security adviser, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, whom Obama announced yesterday as the replacement for Tom Donilon, starting next month.
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Senators led by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul unsuccessfully tried to amend last year’s legislation extending FISA so it would have included what they said were needed provisions to protect the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.
“‘While I cannot corroborate the details of this particular report, this sort of widescale surveillance should concern all of us and is the kind of government overreach I’ve said Americans would find shocking,” Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, said in an e-mailed statement.
Udall voted against renewing the surveillance law last year. At the time, he said the law doesn’t ensure the privacy of Americans and complained the Obama administration had refused to disclose how many U.S. citizens had their communications monitored by the NSA.
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