WASHINGTON (AP) — The government has been secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top secret court order, according to the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration defended the National Security Agency’s need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, but critics said it was a huge over-reach.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Thursday that the top secret court order for telephone records is a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice. She spoke to reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.
The sweeping roundup of U.S. phone records has been going on for years and was a key part of the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The White House offered no immediate on-the-record comment. A senior administration official did not confirm the Guardian newspaper report that the NSA has been collecting the records, but the authenticity of the document was not disputed by the White House. The administration official insisted on anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly by name.
The order was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and is good until July 19, the Guardian reported. The order requires Verizon, one of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies, on an “ongoing, daily basis,” to give the NSA information on all landline and mobile telephone calls of Verizon Business in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.
The newspaper said the document, a copy of which it had obtained, shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether the people are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The disclosure raised a number of questions: What was the government looking for? Were other big telephone companies under similar orders to turn over information? How was the information used?
Former Vice President Al Gore tweeted that privacy was essential in the digital era.
“Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?” wrote Gore, the Democrat who lost the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the Obama administration should disclose the facts.
“I think that they have an obligation to respond immediately,” said Wyden, a frequent critic of government actions dealing with Americans’ privacy.
Under Bush, the National Security Agency built a highly classified wiretapping program to monitor emails and phone calls worldwide. The full details of that program remain unknown, but one aspect was to monitor massive numbers of incoming and outgoing U.S. calls to look for suspicious patterns, said an official familiar with the program. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.