* Data on millions of Verizon customers targeted
* Secret three-month court order published online
* Privacy advocates say surveillance is overreach
* Key U.S. lawmakers support the data collection effort
By Mark Hosenball and John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, June 6 The Obama administration on
Thursday defended its collection of the telephone records of
millions of Americans as part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts,
re-igniting a fierce debate over privacy even as it called the
program critical to warding off an attack.
The admission came after Britain's Guardian newspaper
published on Wednesday a secret court order authorizing the
collection of phone records generated by millions of Verizon
Privacy advocates blasted the order as unconstitutional
government surveillance and called for a review of the program
amid renewed concerns about intelligence-gathering efforts
launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The revelation also put a spotlight on the handling of
intelligence and privacy issues by President Barack Obama's
administration, which already is under fire for searching the
telephone records of Associated Press journalists and the emails
and phone records of a Fox News Channel reporter as part of its
inquiries into leaked government information.
"The United States should not be accumulating phone records
on tens of millions of innocent Americans. That is not what
democracy is about. That is not what freedom is about," said
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont.
The White House said strict controls were in place to ensure
the program did not violate civil liberties, and emphasized that
the collection of data did not include listening to the calls.
"The intelligence community is conducting court-authorized
intelligence activities pursuant to public statute with the
knowledge and oversight of Congress," White House spokesman Josh
Earnest told reporters.
Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House of
Representatives Intelligence Committee, said the program did not
abuse civil liberties and told reporters it had been used to
stop a "significant" terrorist attack within the United States,
but did not give details.
"It's called protecting America," added Senator Dianne
Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate
Leading members of Congress said the program had been going
on for seven years. The White House and U.S. Attorney General
Eric Holder said lawmakers were fully briefed.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said the published court order pertained only to data
such as a telephone number or the length of a call, not the
subscribers' identities or listening to the actual calls.
The order requires Verizon to turn over to the National
Security Agency "metadata" such as a list of numbers that called
other U.S. or international numbers as well as other information
on the time and location of calls. The NSA is the main U.S.
intelligence-gathering agency tasked with monitoring electronic
"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," the senior administration official said.
Verizon has declined to comment. It remains unclear whether
the practice extends to other carriers, although several
security experts and a U.S. official said that was likely.
AT&T Inc declined to comment. Representatives for
other major carriers, including Sprint Nextel Corp and
T-Mobile, could not be immediately reached or had no
The three-month court order, dated April 25, directs
Verizon's Business Network Services Inc and Verizon Business
Services units to hand over daily electronic data until July 19.
It was issued one week after U.S. law enforcement officials
tracked down the two brothers accused of carrying out the deadly
Boston Marathon bombing. Investigators in that case had been
looking into calls made from their phones and had been searching
for one brother's laptop computer.
A U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity,
said this particular surveillance order was not issued in
reaction to the April 15 bombing.
The April order compels Verizon to turn over both
international calling records and domestic records, and refers
to mobile and landline numbers, according to the Guardian's
copy, which was labeled "top secret" and issued by the U.S.
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The four-page document does not lay out why the order was
given or whether it was linked to any specific investigation.
Thursday's admission highlights the ongoing and
controversial campaign of domestic surveillance launched under
Republican President George W. Bush's administration after the
2001 attacks. A 2001 U.S. law known as the Patriot Act allows
the FBI to seek an order to obtain "any tangible thing,"
including business records, to gather intelligence.
'ROBUST LEGAL REGIME'
The senior administration official said that "there is a
robust legal regime in place governing all activities" like the
one outlined in the order and that "all three branches of
government are involved in reviewing and authorizing
But the order raised questions about what authorities hoped
to learn by sorting through the phone data.
Terrorism financing expert Jimmy Gurulé, a former assistant
U.S. attorney general and now a law professor at University of
Notre Dame, said the order goes too far.
"The question is how the phone data of tens of millions of
Americans is 'relevant' to a terrorism investigation. This is
clearly an overreach by the NSA and an apparent rubber stamp by
the FISA court," Gurulé said.
It was unclear if members of Congress knew the scope of the
data collection. Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois told
Holder at a public hearing on the Justice Department's budget
that he was concerned the program could be used to obtain the
phone records of members of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court.
"There has been no intention to do anything of that nature,
that is to spy on members of Congress, to spy on members of the
Supreme Court," Holder said, although he added he could not get
into specifics of the program in public.
Administration and congressional officials said members of
the House and Senate intelligence committees had been briefed in
detail about collection activities on multiple occasions. One
official said the intelligence panels also provided information
on the program to any other lawmaker who sought it.
"If we didn't do it, we'd be crazy," Republican Senator
Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said of data collection.
The American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups,
called on Congress to investigate the scope of the effort, which
it labeled "alarming" and "unconstitutional."
"It's a program in which some untold number of innocent
people have been put under the constant surveillance of
government agents," the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer said.
The order can be seen at: