The Obama administration is defending the National Security Agency's need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens.
Britain's Guardian newspaper is reporting that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers under a top secret court order. A senior administration official would not confirm the report but did call such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats."
The Guardian reports the order was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and is good until July 19. It requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.
The administration official says the order as reported by the newspaper would "not allow the government to listen in on anyone's calls."
The administration official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to publicly discuss classified matters.
The Associated Press could not authenticate the order because documents from the court are classified.
The law on which the order explicitly relies is the "business records" provision of the USA Patriot Act.
"Privacy advocates have long warned that allowing the government to collect and store unlimited 'metadata' is a highly invasive form of surveillance of citizens' communications activities," The Guardian points out. "Those records enable the government to know the identity of every person with whom an individual communicates electronically, how long they spoke, and their location at the time of the communication. Such metadata is what the US government has long attempted to obtain in order to discover an individual's network of associations and communication patterns. The request for the bulk collection of all Verizon domestic telephone records indicates that the agency is continuing some version of the data-mining program begun by the Bush administration in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack."