WASHINGTON: The US government Thursday said a top spy agency was using a “crucial tool” against terrorism by sweeping up domestic telephone records, but new revelations on the program sparked a swift backlash.
One civil liberties group branded the practice, authorized by a top secret court order, as “beyond Orwellian” while others argued the idea of a massive dragnet encompassing tens of millions of phone records was unconstitutional.
The program, which began under the Bush administration, apparently does not monitor the content of telephone calls or who is making them, but provides “metadata” on phone numbers used and the duration of calls.
Advocates say the data, collected on calls inside and outside the United States, can then be crunched to show odd patterns of communication which can tip off spy agencies to possible planning for terror attacks.
Senior US officials, while not confirming reports in the Guardian newspaper that service provider Verizon had been ordered to turn over reams of data, defended the National Security Agency (NSA), the secret listening service.
“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,” said a senior US official on condition of anonymity.
“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 official said that all three branches of the US government, the White House, Congress, and the judicial system, were involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection under current laws.
Officials also stressed that information acquired in the surveillance does not allow the government to “listen in” on anyone’s calls or provide information on the content of conversations or a caller’s name.
The revelations meant new controversy for the Obama White House as it battles claims of harsh treatment towards leakers, that it accessed phone records of the Associated Press and targeted a Fox News reporter in an intelligence probe.
A program hoarding phone records was first reported during the Bush administration, and formed part of sweeping anti-terror laws and surveillance practices adopted after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
But the latest revelations are the first sign that the technique is continuing under Barack Obama — though laws authorizing such practices have been reauthorized under the current president.
A top secret order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) issued on April 25 and obtained by the Guardian gives the US government unlimited power to collect data from a three month period ending on July 19.
It is unclear whether telephone providers other than Verizon have faced similar orders.
Civil liberties groups immediately cried foul.
“It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“It is beyond Orwellian.”
Former vice president Al Gore, on his Twitter feed, agreed: “In (this) digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?”
But Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the program was lawful and had been already briefed to Congress.
“The information goes into a database, the metadata, but cannot be accessed without what’s called, and I quote, ‘reasonable, articulable suspicion’ that the records are relevant and related to terrorist activity,” Feinstein said.
“Terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing that we have to deter this is good intelligence, to understand that a plot is being hatched and to get there before they get to us.”
The Republican vice chairman of the committee Saxby Chambliss said the report showed nothing “particularly new.”
“This has been going on for seven years on the auspices of the FISA authority,” he said.
“It is simply what we call metadata that is never utilized by any government agency unless they go back to the FISA court and show that there is real cause as to why something within the metadata should be looked at.”
In 2006, USA Today sent jaws dropping when it reported that the NSA had “been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.”
It had been “using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity,” the paper reported.