WASHINGTON — After a leaked document laid bare the scope of the government’s surveillance of Americans’ phone records — hundreds of millions of calls — key members of Congress joined the Obama administration Thursday in defending the secret call-logging program, saying the surveillance had helped avert a terrorist attack and operated under the required supervision.
The document is the first hard evidence of a massive data-collection program aimed at combating terrorism under powers granted by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks.
At issue is a court order, first disclosed late Wednesday by The Guardian newspaper in Britain, that requires a Verizon subsidiary, Verizon Business Network Services, to turn over on an “ongoing, daily basis” the records of all landline and mobile telephone calls of its customers, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries. Intelligence experts said the government, though not listening in on calls, would be looking for patterns that could lead to terrorists — and there was every reason to believe similar orders were in place for other phone companies.
The call-logging revelation was followed Thursday by a report that the National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI, in a separate years-long effort, have been tapping into the servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies. Together, the unfolding disclosures opened an extraordinary window into the growth of government surveillance that began under the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and has clearly been embraced and expanded under the Obama administration.
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The leaks about the programs brought a sharp response from James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. Late Thursday, he called disclosure of the Internet surveillance program “reprehensible” and said the leak about the phone-records collecting could cause long-lasting and irreversible harm to the nation’s ability to respond to threats.
He also said news reports about the programs contained inaccuracies and omitted key information, though he declined to specify them, but said he was declassifying some details about the call-logging program.
Some critics in Congress and civil-liberties advocates declared that the sweeping nature of the NSA call-logging program represented an unwarranted intrusion into Americans’ private lives. But a number of lawmakers, including some Republicans, lauded the program’s effectiveness.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the NSA phone-records collection helped thwart a significant case of terrorism in the United States “within the last few years.” He declined to elaborate on the attack.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said of the phone-records collecting: “When law-abiding Americans make phone calls, who they call, when they call and where they call is private information. As a result of the discussion that came to light today, now we’re going to have a real debate.”
But Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Americans have no cause for concern. “If you’re not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said.
Several lawmakers confirmed that the Verizon order, granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court and signed by Judge Roger Vinson, was only a glimpse of a broader program of records-collection and analysis that dates back seven years. It was not clear whether other telecommunications companies have received similar orders and are turning over the same information about their customers.
Administration officials said the collection process required Verizon to provide only the time and number logs showing when calls were made, not the content of the communications or names of subscribers.
Without confirming the authenticity of the court order, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said such surveillance powers are “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats,” by helping officials determine if people in the U.S. who may have been engaged in terrorist activities have been in touch with other known or suspected terrorists.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the order was a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice that is supervised by federal judges who balance efforts to protect the country from terrorist attacks against the need to safeguard Americans’ privacy. The surveillance powers are granted under the USA Patriot Act, which was renewed in 2006 and again in 2011.
While the program’s scale may not have been news to some congressional leaders, the disclosure offered a public glimpse into a program whose breadth is not widely understood. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who serves on the Intelligence Committee, said it was the type of surveillance that “I have long said would shock the public if they knew about it.”
The public is now on notice that the government has been collecting data on every phone call every American makes, a program that has operated in the shadows for years, under President George W. Bush, and continued by President Obama.
“It is very likely that business-records orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company, meaning that if you make calls in the United States the NSA has those records,” wrote Cindy Cohn, general counsel of the nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Privacy advocates said the scope of the program was indefensible. “This confirms our worst fears,” said Alexander Abdo, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “If the government can track who we call,” he said, “the right to privacy has not just been compromised — it has been defeated.”
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who sponsored the USA Patriot Act that governs the collection, said he was “extremely troubled by the FBI’s interpretation of this legislation.”
The Verizon order, granted by the secret FISA court on April 25 and good until July 19, requires information on the phone numbers of both parties on a call, as well as call time and duration, and unique identifiers, according to The Guardian.
It does not authorize snooping into the content of phone calls. But with millions of phone records in hand, the NSA’s computers can analyze them for patterns, spot unusual behavior and identify “communities of interest” — networks of people in contact with targets or suspicious phone numbers overseas.
Once the government has zeroed in on numbers that it believes are tied to terrorism or foreign governments, it can go back to the court with a wiretap request. That allows the government to monitor the calls in real time, record them and store them indefinitely.
Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, said that once the data have been collected, officials still must follow “a court-approved method and a series of checks and balances to even make the query on a particular number.”
But Jim Harper, a communications and privacy expert at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, questioned the effectiveness of pattern analyses to intercept terrorism. He said that kind of analysis would produce many false positives and give the government access to intricate data about people’s calling habits.
Verizon Executive Vice President and General Counsel Randy Milch, in a blog post, said the company isn’t allowed to comment on any such court order.
The company listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter earnings report in April.
Compiled from The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The New York Times.