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Monumental phone-records monitoring is laid bare

Friday - 6/7/2013, 3:24am  ET

Pedestrians pass a Verizon Wireless store on Canal Street, Thursday, June 6, 2013, in New York. The Obama administration on Thursday, June 6, 2013, defended the government's need to collect telephone records of American citizens, calling such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers under a top secret court order. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

DONNA CASSATA
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A leaked document has laid bare the monumental scope of the government's surveillance of Americans' phone records -- hundreds of millions of calls -- in the first hard evidence of a massive data collection program aimed at combating terrorism under powers granted by Congress after the 9/11 attacks.

At issue is a court order, first disclosed Wednesday by The Guardian newspaper in Britain, that requires the communications company Verizon 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 that there was every reason to believe similar orders were in place for other phone companies.

Some critics in Congress, as well as civil liberties advocates, declared that the sweeping nature of the National Security Agency program represented an unwarranted intrusion into Americans' private lives. But a number of lawmakers, including some Republicans who normally jump at the chance to criticize the Obama administration, lauded the program's effectiveness. Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee said the program had helped thwart at least one attempted terrorist attack in the United States, "possibly saving American lives."

Separately, The Washington Post and The Guardian reported Thursday the existence of another program used by the NSA and FBI that scours the nation's main Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs to help analysts track a person's movements and contacts. It was not clear whether the program, called PRISM, targets known suspects or broadly collects data from other Americans.

The companies include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. The Post said PalTalk has had numerous posts about the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. It also said Dropbox would soon be included.

Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Apple said in statements that they do not provide the government with direct access to their records.

"When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law," the company said.

The leaks about the programs brought a sharp response from James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. In an unusual statement late Thursday, Clapper called disclosure of the Internet surveillance program "reprehensible" and said the leak about the phone record collecting could cause long-lasting and irreversible harm to the nation's ability to respond to threats.

Clapper said news reports about the programs contained inaccuracies and omitted key information. He declassified some details about the authority used in the phone records program because he said Americans must know the program's limits. Those details included that a special national security court reviews the program every 90 days and that the court prohibits the government from indiscriminately sifting through phone data. Queries are only allowed when facts support reasonable suspicion, Clapper said.

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.

A senior administration official pointed out that the collection of communication cited in the Washington Post and Guardian articles involves "extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons." The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity, added that Congress had recently reauthorized the program.

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 terror attacks against the need to safeguard Americans' privacy. The surveillance powers are granted under the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which was renewed in 2006 and again in 2011.

While the scale of the program might 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, a Colorado Democrat 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."

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