Britain’s Guardian newspaper has revealed that the US National Security Agency continues to indiscriminately collect Americans’ phone records. The Obama administration has defended the practice.
The Obama administration on Thursday defended the secret surveillance of US citizens' phone calls, calling the practice "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats."
Although a senior Obama administration official defended the practice, the official did not confirm the specific report published by the Guardian. The official, whose comments were reported by Reuters and the Associated Press, asked to remain anonymous.
A secret intelligence court in the United States had ordered the telecommunications company Verizon to provide the National Security Agency (NSA) with the phone records of millions of Americans, according to a report published on the Guardian's website on Wednesday.
The Guardian obtained and published the top secret court order, which compelled Verizon to open its customers' phone records to the NSA on an "ongoing, daily basis." The order, issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) on April 25, covers calls both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The court order, granted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was issued for a three-month period ending on July 19. It's unclear whether other telecommunications companies were also issued such orders.
"Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls," the Guardian wrote in its report. "The contents of the conversation itself are not covered."
Patriot Act provision
The court order was issued on the basis of a "business records" provision in the Patriot Act, the law which granted the US federal government broad surveillance authority after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"This is a truly stunning revelation," Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Washington Post newspaper in reference to the court order.
"This suggests that the government has been compiling a comprehensive record of Americans' associations and possibly even their whereabouts," Goitein said.
Origins in Bush administration
The practice of broadly surveilling American phone records began shortly after September 11, 2001 under the George W. Bush administration. The New York Times revealed in 2005 that the NSA was wiretapping phone records without warrants.
In 2006, USA Today reported that the NSA was collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans from AT&T, Verizon and Bell South.
Until the Guardian report was published, there had been no public indications that the Obama administration had continued the practice.
slk/kms (AP, AFP, Reuters)