US govt defends collecting Verizon phone records

In this Feb. 10, 2011 file photo, Chris Cioban, manager of the Verizon store in Beachwood, Ohio, holds up an Apple iPhone 4G. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)
In this Feb. 10, 2011 file photo, Chris Cioban, manager of the Verizon store in Beachwood, Ohio, holds up an Apple iPhone 4G. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A British newspaper reported that the United States has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans under a top secret court order. The Obama administration on Thursday defended the government’s need to collect telephone records of American citizens, calling such information “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.”

While defending the practice, a senior Obama administration official did not confirm the report Wednesday in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

The disclosure was likely to bring questions from both Republicans and Democrats of how far the Obama administration’s surveillance policies go, following controversies over the government’s tracking of Associated Press journalists’ phone records and obtaining a warrant to secretly gather a Fox News reporter’s emails.

The White House has been on the defensive against Republicans who claim the administration is too intrusive in Americans’ lives, citing the federal tax agency’s targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny as proof.

Republicans also claim Obama aides manipulated the government’s response to last year’s deadly attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to remove any links to terrorism in the heat of a presidential election, which the White House denies.

The court order to collect phone records was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and is good until July 19, the newspaper reported. The order requires Verizon, one of America’s largest telecommunications companies, on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the National Security Agency information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

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 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 Wednesday the company had no comment. The NSA had no immediate comment.

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 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.

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 Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was very controversial.

The secret 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, which passed after Sept. 11, 2001.

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AP writes Julie Pace and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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