Obama administration defends massive phone record collection

Privacy advocates are worried after a Guardian report revealed wirespread surveillance of cell phone data from at least one carrier.
Privacy advocates are worried after a Guardian report revealed widespread surveillance of cell phone data by at least one carrier.

The Obama administration on Thursday defended its collection of a massive amount of telephone records from at least one carrier as part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, reigniting a debate over privacy even as it called the practice critical to protecting Americans from attacks.

The admission came after Britain’s Guardian newspaper published on Wednesday a secret court order related to the records of millions of Verizon Communications customers. The surveillance appears to have involved the phone records of millions of Americans.

Privacy advocates blasted the order as unconstitutional government surveillance and called for a review.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not specifically confirm the report, but noted the published court order pertains only to data such as a telephone number or the length of a call, and not the subscribers’ identities or the content of the telephone calls.

The order requires the government to turn over to the National Security Agency so-called “metadata” such as a list of numbers that called other U.S. or international numbers as well as other transactional information on the time and location of calls. The NSA is the main U.S. intelligence-gathering agency tasked with monitoring electronic communications.

“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.

The revelation renewed concerns about the intelligence-gathering effort — criticized by human rights and privacy advocates — launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and raised questions about its oversight.

It also drew fresh attention to President Barack Obama’s handling of privacy and free speech issues. His administration already is under fire for searching Associated Press journalists’ calling records and the emails of a Fox News reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.

Verizon has declined to comment. It remains unclear whether the practice extends to other carriers, though several security experts and at least one U.S. lawmaker 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 immediate comment.

Boston bombing’s role?

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 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.

Another official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said this particular surveillance order was not necessarily issued in reaction to the April 15 bombing. A third official said some data collection was stepped up in the aftermath of that attack.

The April order expressly 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 intelligence officials’ ongoing and controversial campaign of domestic surveillance launched under President George W. Bush’s administration after the 2001 attacks. A 2001 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’

Although the order revealed on Wednesday does not allow for the government to listen in on customer’s conversations, it still raises questions about what authorities hope to learn sorting through millions of transactions.

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 intelligence collection.”

Terrorism financing expert Jimmy Gurulé said although the court did not need to find probable cause under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, 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,” said Gurulé, a former assistant U.S. attorney general and now a law professor at University of Notre Dame.

Additionally, it is also unclear how aware members of Congress were about the extent of the data collection.

Administration and congressional officials said that members of the House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees had been briefed in detail about collection activities under the law on multiple occasions.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he was not concerned about the monitoring, which he said was more limited in scope, adding that he is also a Verizon customer.

“I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist’s phone with somebody in the United States,” he told Fox News Channel. “I’m glad the activity is going on, but it is limited to tracking people who are suspected to be terrorists, and who they may be talking to.”

Still, some other lawmakers have expressed growing concern with broad intelligence gathering methods for years.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has been critical of sweeping surveillance, declined to comment on the report but called on the White House “to respond immediately.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups, has called on Congress to investigate the scope of the effort, which it called “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,” Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, said in a statement.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Gunther from 'Friends' talks Central Perk

We spoke with Gunther (James Michael Tyler) at the preview for new pop-up Central Perk, based on the cafe in "Friends."

Local

Central Perk opens in SoHo

Central Perk, of "Friends" fame, is giving out free coffee in SoHo through Oct. 18.

National

Beer sponsor Anheuser-Busch reproaches NFL over domestic abuse

Anheuser-Busch chastised the NFL for its handling of domestic violence cases, making it the first major advertiser to put pressure on the league.

Local

Sen. Krueger dishes on prospect of legal marijuana…

New Yorkers may see the legalization of recreational marijuana use as early as 2015 if State Senator Liz Krueger (D) gets her way. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act will…

Music

FREEMAN makes Freeman a free man from Ween

For nearly 30 years, Aaron Freeman was known endearingly to his listeners as Gene Ween. But with "FREEMAN," he makes it clear that he's gone somewhere else.

Television

'Outlander' recap: Season 1, Episode 6: 'The Garrison…

Whipping, punching, kicking and a marriage contract. "Outlander" is not for the faint of heart this week with "The Garrison Commander."

The Word

The Word: Hey girl, it's a girl for…

It's a girl for Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes, who reportedly welcomed a daughter last Friday, according to Us Weekly. The super-private couple managed to…

Television

TV watch list, Tuesday, Sept. 16: 'New Girl,'…

Check out the season premiere of "New Girl," as Jess competes with Jessica Biel for a guy's attentions.

MLB

5 top contenders for NL Rookie of the…

The outing rekindled award talk for deGrom, who appears to hold the top spot for NL Rookie of the Year honors. Metro breaks down a few other contenders.

College

College football Top 25 poll (AP rankings)

College football Top 25 poll (AP rankings)

NFL

NFL Power Rankings: Broncos No. 1, Seahawks slip,…

NFL Power Rankings: Broncos No. 1, Seahawks slip, Eagles, Bills, Patriots climb. The Cardinals, Bills, Chargers and Packers are also featured in the top 10.

NFL

Tom Coughlin says Giants 'beat themselves' against Cardinals

Head coach Tom Coughlin, who had a day to cool off and reflect, still sounded like he had a gnawing feeling in his gut.

Parenting

Win tickets to CirKiz's VIP Club event for…

Enter to win a family pack of tickets to CirKiz's launch event on September 21 at VIP Club.

Wellbeing

Suicide study finds surprising link to sunshine

Scientists have found a link between sunlight and suicide rates — but not in the way you’d expect. As summer winds down, concern turns to…

Wellbeing

NYC's doctor-patient ratio is highest of any US…

Seeing a primary care physician is getting more difficult across the country, but new data shows just how bad the problem is — particularly in…

Parenting

Tech execs tend to limit their kids' screen…

You probably got your iPad before Bill Gates's kids did.