WASHINGTON–Verizon handed over tens of millions of phone records of U.S. customers to the National Security Agency, under a secret court order, the British newspaper the Guardian reported. On Thursday morning the White House was not denying that snooping goes on as part of the ongoing fight against terrorists.
The Guardian posted a copy of the four-page “top secret” court order allowing the collection of information on calls–referred to as “telephony metadata” –from a Verizon subsidiary signed in April by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Roger Vinson.
The order said the “substantive content” of the call or the name of the subscriber or customer was not to be included. The surveillance is legal under a variety of laws Congress passed and former President George W. Bush signed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
The Obama administration now has another major privacy issue to confront, coming in the wake of the IRS scandal and pursuing leak probes against the Associated Press and Fox News.
A senior administration official told the Sun-Times in a statement, “the article discusses what purports to be an order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes the production of business records.
“Orders of the FISA Court are classified. On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.
“Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it 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.
“As we have publicly stated before, all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congress passed that act and is regularly and fully briefed on how it is used, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizes such collection.
“There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That regime has been briefed to and approved by the Court. And, activities authorized under the Act are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties.”