The White House yesterday defended the government’s need to collect telephone records of US citizens, calling such information “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats,” after a British newspaper reported that the US has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans under a top secret court order.
While defending the practice, a senior US administration official did not confirm the report on Wednesday in the Guardian newspaper.
The order was granted by the secret US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and is good until July 19, the newspaper reported. The order requires Verizon, one of the US’ largest telecommunications companies, on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the National Security Agency (NSA) information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The Guardian said the document, a copy of which it had obtained, shows for the first time that under the administration of US President Barack Obama, the communication records of millions of US citizens were being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether they were suspected of any wrongdoing.
The Associated Press could not authenticate the order because documents from the court are classified.
The administration official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to publicly discuss classified matters.
Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said on Wednesday the company had no comment. The NSA had no immediate comment.
Verizon listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter earnings report in April — 98.9 million wireless customers, 11.7 million residential phone lines and about 10 million commercial lines. The court order did not specify which type of phone 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.
“On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls,” the administration official said.
The broad, unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is unusual. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act 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 administration of former US president George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was very controversial.