Obama defends phone record seizures
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is defending the government's secret seizure of millions of domestic telephone records from Verizon, saying the data collection program “has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.”
A senior administration official released a statement Thursday after the British newspaper The Guardian first reported the secret operation. The paper posted on its website a classified court order that requires the telecommunications company to turn over daily records with the length, location and time of individual phone calls, as well as phone numbers.
The official did not confirm the existence of the order, which is marked "Top Secret." It was issued in late April by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court that meets in Washington, and allowed the government to collect the bulk data until July 19. It's unclear if the 90-day order was a renewal of a standing request.
"The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber," the official said. "It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.
The official said telephone data "allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.”
The official requested anonymity to discuss the counterterrorism program.
President Obama has come under increasing criticism from civil liberties groups and others who accuse the White House of masking government action in unnecessary secrecy.
The criticism has generally focused on the lack of transparency about targeted killings of suspected terrorists and militants overseas. It intensified recently after the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed telephone records from the Associated Press, and obtained a warrant to examine emails of a Fox News reporter.
In defending the data collection program, the administration official sought to spread responsibility, noting that “all three branches” of government were tasked with review and oversight of surveillance.
The court order was authorized under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the government to collect business records in bulk if its requests are approved by the FISA court.
"There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," the official said. He said that involves oversight by the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA court.
The disclosure of the order, which has not been independently verified by NBC News, comes after the Obama administration has taken fire for a Justice Department subpoena of Associated Press phone records.
Holder told NBC News Wednesday that he has no intention of stepping down from his job despite calls by some congressional Republicans for his resignation, citing the AP seizure.
Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, called the collection of call data as described in the Guardian report “an outrageous breach of Americans’ privacy” in a news release Thursday. “This bulk data collection is being done under interpretations of the law that have been kept secret from the public. Significant FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court opinions that determine the scope of our laws should be declassified.”
Verizon had 98.9 million wireless customers at the end of the first quarter this year, according to an earnings report released in April, as well as about 11.7 million residential and 10 million commercial lines. It is not clear whether other parts of Verizon might have received similar orders.
The order explicitly prohibits any person from disclosing that the NSA or FBI Investigation has sought records under the order.
“Now that this unconstitutional surveillance effort has been revealed, the government should end it and disclose its full scope, and Congress should initiate an investigation,” Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “This disclosure also highlights the growing gap between the public’s and the government’s understandings of the many sweeping surveillance authorities enacted by Congress.”
The law on which the order explicitly relies is the "business records" provision of the USA Patriot Act.
Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, both Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a March 2012 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that most Americans would “stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act.”
“As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows,” the senators wrote in the letter. “This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.”
Former vice president Al Gore called the practices described in the order “obscenely outrageous” in a message posted on Twitter Wednesday night. “In digital era, privacy must be a priority,” Gore wrote. “Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous.”
The order is the first concrete evidence that U.S. intelligence officials are continuing a broad campaign of domestic surveillance that began under President George W. Bush and caused great controversy when it was first exposed, according to Reuters.