Amy Sancetta, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order, according to the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration is defending the National Security Agency's need to collect such records, but critics are calling it a huge over-reach.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters Thursday that the court order for telephone records, first disclosed by The Guardian newspaper in Britain, was a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice. The records have been collected for some seven years, according to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"I think people want the homeland kept safe to the extent we can," Feinstein said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "We want to protect these privacy rights. That's why this is carefully done in federal court with federal judges who sit 24/7 who review these requests."
And the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, said the NSA search of telephone records had thwarted an attempted terrorist attack in the United States in the past few years. He said it was a "significant case" but declined to provide further details.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that he couldn't provide classified details but that the court order in question is a critical tool for learning when terrorists or suspected terrorists might be engaging in dangerous activities. He said there are strict legal rules on how such a program is conducted and that congressional leaders are briefed.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent whose comments were echoed by several members of both parties, said: "To simply say in a blanket way that millions and millions of Americans are going to have their phone records checked by the U.S. government is to my mind indefensible and unacceptable."
The disclosure raised a number of questions: What is the government looking for? Are other big telephone companies under similar orders to turn over information? How is the information used and how long are the records kept?
The sweeping roundup of U.S. phone records has been going on for years and was a key part of the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program, according to a U.S. official.
Attorney General Eric Holder sidestepped questions about the issue during an appearance before a Senate subcommittee, offering instead to discuss it at a classified session that several senators said they would arrange.
The order was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and is good until July 19, the Guardian reported. It requires Verizon, one of the nation's largest telecommunications companies, on an "ongoing, daily basis," to give the NSA information on all landline and mobile telephone calls of Verizon Business in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.
The document 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.
A former U.S. intelligence official who is familiar with the NSA program said that records from all U.S. phone companies would be seized by the government under the warrants, and that they would include business and residential numbers.
Reaction to the revelation — both pro and con — reflected the vigorous debate in Washington over how best to balance the sometimes-competing goals of protecting the nation from terror attacks while safeguarding the privacy and civil rights of Americans. President Barack Obama, in a recent national security address, said the nation is at a crossroads as it determines how to remain vigilant yet move beyond a post-9/11 mindset focused on global antiterrorism.
Former Vice President Al Gore tweeted that privacy was essential in the digital era.
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