Report: Gov't collecting Verizon phone records - New York News

White House defends collection of phone records

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House says a court order allowing the government to secretly collect millions of U.S. citizens' telephone records is a critical tool to fight security threats.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest says he can't discuss classified information. But he says the court order in question allows the intelligence community to know when terrorists or suspected terrorists are engaging in dangerous activities. He says that's particularly true for people located in the U.S.

He says the order doesn't allow the government to listen in on calls, but only includes details like telephone numbers.

Earnest says there's a robust legal regime overseeing the program and that Congress has been fully briefed.

Disclosure of the phone records was first reported by The Guardian newspaper and confirmed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Feinstein 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 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.

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.

After The New York Times revealed the existence of that wiretapping program, the roundup continued under authority granted in the USA Patriot Act, the official said.

The official did not know if the program was continuous or whether it stopped and restarted at times.

The official had not seen the court order released by the Guardian newspaper but said it was consistent with similar authorizations the Justice Department has received.

Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said Wednesday the company had no comment.

The NSA had no immediate comment. The agency is sensitive to perceptions that it might be spying on Americans. In a brochure it distributes, which includes a DVD for reporters to view video that it provides for public relations purposes, it pledges that the agency "is unwavering in its respect for U.S. laws and Americans' civil liberties -- and its commitment to accountability," and says, "Earning the American public's trust is paramount."

Verizon Communications Inc. listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter earnings report this April -- 98.9 million wireless customers, 11.7 million residential phone lines and about 10 million commercial lines. The court order didn't specify which customers' records were being tracked.

Under the terms of the order, the phone numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as are location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, The Guardian said.

The administration official said, "On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls."

The broad, unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is unusual. FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets. NSA warrantless wiretapping during the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks was very controversial.

The FISA court order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compelled Verizon to provide the NSA with electronic copies of "all call detail records or telephony metadata created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad" or "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls," The Guardian said.

The law on which the order explicitly relies is the "business records" provision of the USA Patriot Act.

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AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier and AP writers Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman contributed to this report.

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