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Monumental phone-records monitoring is laid bare

  • Pedestrians pass a Verizon Wireless store on Canal Street, Thursday, June 6, 2013, in New York. The Obama administration on Thursday, June 6, 2013, 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." Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers under a top secret court order. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

    Pedestrians pass a Verizon Wireless store on Canal Street, Thursday, June 6, 2013, in New York. The Obama administration on Thursday, June 6, 2013, 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." Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers under a top secret court order. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

  • FILE - This Sept. 19, 2007, file photo, shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md.  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 Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cailf., 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. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

    FILE - This Sept. 19, 2007, file photo, shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md. 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 Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cailf., 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. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

  • Pedestrians pass a Verizon Wireless store on Canal Street, Thursday, June 6, 2013, in New York. The Obama administration on Thursday, June 6, 2013, 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." Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers under a top secret court order. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
  • FILE - This Sept. 19, 2007, file photo, shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md.  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 Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cailf., 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. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

A leaked document has laid bare the monumental scope of the government’s surveillance of Americans’ phone records – hundreds of millions of calls – in the first hard evidence of a massive data collection program aimed at combating terrorism under powers granted by Congress after the 9/11 attacks.

At issue is a court order, first disclosed Wednesday by The Guardian newspaper in Britain, that requires the communications company Verizon to turn over on an “ongoing, daily basis” the records of all landline and mobile telephone calls of its customers, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries. Intelligence experts said the government, though not listening in on calls, would be looking for patterns that could lead to terrorists – and that there was every reason to believe similar orders were in place for other phone companies.

Some critics in Congress, as well as civil liberties advocates, declared that the sweeping nature of the National Security Agency program represented an unwarranted intrusion into Americans’ private lives. But a number of lawmakers, including some Republicans who normally jump at the chance to criticize the Obama administration, lauded the program’s effectiveness. Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee said the program had helped thwart at least one attempted terrorist attack in the United States, “possibly saving American lives.”

Separately, The Washington Post and The Guardian reported yesterday the existence of another program used by the NSA and FBI that scours the nation’s main Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs to help analysts track a person’s movements and contacts. It was not clear whether the program, called PRISM, targets known suspects or broadly collects data from other Americans.

The companies include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. The Post said PalTalk has had numerous posts about the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. It also said Dropbox would soon be included.

Google, Facebook and Yahoo said in statements that they do not provide the government with direct access to their records.

“When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law,” the company said.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said of the phone-records collecting: “When law-abiding Americans make phone calls, who they call, when they call and where they call is private information. As a result of the discussion that came to light today, now we’re going to have a real debate.”

But Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Americans have no cause for concern. “If you’re not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said.

A senior administration official pointed out that the collection of communication cited in the Washington Post and Guardian articles involves “extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons.” The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity, added that Congress had recently reauthorized the program.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the order was a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice that is supervised by federal judges who balance efforts to protect the country from terror attacks against the need to safeguard Americans’ privacy. The surveillance powers are granted under the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which was renewed in 2006 and again in 2011.

While the scale of the program might not have been news to some congressional leaders, the disclosure offered a public glimpse into a program whose breadth is not widely understood. Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who serves on the Intelligence Committee, said it was the type of surveillance that “I have long said would shock the public if they knew about it.”

The government has hardly been forthcoming.

Wyden released a video of himself pressing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on the matter during a Senate hearing in March.

“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Wyden asked.

“No, sir,” Clapper answered.

“It does not?” Wyden pressed.

Clapper quickly softened his answer. “Not wittingly,” he said. “There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect – but not wittingly.”

There was no immediate comment from Clapper’s office Thursday on his testimony in March.

The public is now on notice that the government has been collecting data – even if not listening to the conversations – on every phone call every American makes, a program that has operated in the shadows for years, under President George W. Bush, and continued by President Obama.

“It is very likely that business records orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company, meaning that if you make calls in the United States the NSA has those records,” wrote Cindy Cohn, general counsel of the nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, and staff attorney Mark Rumold, in a blog post.

Without confirming the authenticity of the court order, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said such surveillance powers are “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats,” by helping officials determine if people in the U.S. who may have been engaged in terrorist activities have been in touch with other known or suspected terrorists.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, stressed that phone records are collected under court orders that are approved by the Senate and House Intelligence committees and regularly reviewed.

And Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada played down the significance of the revelation.

“Everyone should just calm down and understand that this isn’t anything that’s brand new,” he said. “This is a program that’s been in effect for seven years, as I recall. It’s a program that has worked to prevent not all terrorism but certainly the vast, vast majority. Now is the program perfect? Of course not.”

But privacy advocates said the scope of the program was indefensible.

“This confirms our worst fears,” said Alexander Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “If the government can track who we call,” he said, “the right to privacy has not just been compromised – it has been defeated.”

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, who sponsored the USA Patriot Act that governs the collection, said he was “extremely troubled by the FBI’s interpretation of this legislation.”

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.

House Speaker John Boehner called on Obama to explain why the program is necessary.

It would “be helpful if they’d come forward with the details here,” he said.

The disclosure comes at a particularly inopportune time for the Obama administration. The president already faces questions over the Internal Revenue Service’s improper targeting of conservative groups, the seizure of journalists’ phone records in an investigation into who leaked information to the media, and the administration’s handling of the terrorist attack in Libya that left four Americans dead.

At a minimum, it’s all a distraction as the president tries to tackle big issues like immigration reform and taxes. And it could serve to erode trust in Obama as he tries to advance his second-term agenda and cement his presidential legacy.

The Verizon order, granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and good until July 19, requires information on the phone numbers of both parties on a call, as well as call time and duration, and unique identifiers, according to The Guardian.

It does not authorize snooping into the content of phone calls. But with millions of phone records in hand, the NSA’s computers can analyze them for patterns, spot unusual behavior and identify “communities of interest” – networks of people in contact with targets or suspicious phone numbers overseas.

Once the government has zeroed in on numbers that it believes are tied to terrorism or foreign governments, it can go back to the court with a wiretap request. That allows the government to monitor the calls in real time, record them and store them indefinitely.

Rogers said once the data has been collected, officials still must follow “a court-approved method and a series of checks and balances to even make the query on a particular number.”

But Jim Harper, a communications and privacy expert at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, questioned the effectiveness of pattern analyses to intercept terrorism. He said that kind of analysis would produce many false positives and give the government access to intricate data about people’s calling habits.

Verizon Executive Vice President and General Counsel Randy Milch, in a blog post, said the company isn’t allowed to comment on any such court order.

“Verizon continually takes steps to safeguard its customers’ privacy,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, the law authorizes the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances, and if Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply.”

The company 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 NSA had no immediate comment. The agency is sensitive to perceptions that it might be spying on Americans. It distributes a brochure that pledges the agency “is unwavering in its respect for U.S. laws and Americans’ civil liberties – and its commitment to accountability.”

Under Bush, the NSA built a highly classified wiretapping program to monitor emails and phone calls worldwide. The full details of that program remain unknown, but one aspect was to monitor massive numbers of incoming and outgoing U.S. calls to look for suspicious patterns, said an official familiar with the program. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

After the New York Times revealed the existence of that wiretapping program, the data collection continued under the Patriot Act, the official said. The official did not know if the program was continuous or whether it stopped and restarted at times.

The FISA 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 Patriot Act.

Legacy Comments27

I wonder how many of you complaining about the Federal Government have taken a look at the last APP you downloaded on your smartphone or tablet. The latest update for Facebook says you need to agree to the permissions in order to install it. How many of you have read that once you agree you give permission to Facebook to have full "administrative" control over your "device" that means full access to all programs and information. You also agree to allow them to track you via "coarse internet locations" and "fine GPS" so they know where you are all the time. You also allow them to prevent your phone from going to "sleep" mode so unless you physically power it down they have full and complete access and control of your device at any and all times of the days to do a full data "phishing" of your device on all data and voice calls. That means they get to see what you "surf" on the net plus all E-mail info on all of your contacts which you have given them full access. By the way if you think using a PC gets you away from this more than likely Facebook and other programs all load at startup and they are doing the same thing on your PC. As the old song by the Buffalo Springfield says "Paranoia starts deep , into your life it will creep".

All I know is Senator Obama is going to be very concerned when he finds out what the president has been up to.

Has anyone ever wondered how General Petraeus sex scandal got into the news? Now I'm not saying what he did was right..but..just who do you think was responsible for making the details of his private e mail public?

I'm very confused as to why some would try to silence me. I called Obama a liar and a moron, I mean really, You would think I put a Hitler mustache on him, or faked a picture disrespecting some sitting Governor, or made false claims about his expense report.

Again Tillie, debate the issues. Do you understand what hypocrisy is? Stop putting everybody who disagrees with you in the same catagory. And if you are going to accuse someone of being mean and name calling, it is usually wise to not do what you are accusing them of doing. I think it is quite a stretch to say someone is the same as another when both parties express themselves differently. I agree with GWTW on many issues, but we put our points across differently, just like you and the folks that agree with you do. I disagree with this president's policies, but I do not call him anything more than incompetent. If I have, point it out to me.

My guess is that the left will not hold this President accountable for anything. It is obvious by the posts here that many are not willing to accept what is going on. It is Bush's fault always. They cannot fathom that any politician can be corrupt, unless that politician is a Rep. Even one that comes from the heartland of corruption, Chicago. When your govt starts abusing the power it has, you better wake up folks. So far we have the DOJ, IRS and the EPA. At some point you will have to realize, this is widespread and getting bigger. Maybe it has to get really bad before folks wake up.

RabbitNH, correct, they will not EVER hold this President accountable. There are several reasons for that. One is race, they are so fixated on the race of the president that he could murder someone and they would say, "so what". They pretend that he is a moderate but in their heart of hearts, they know that he is an extreme leftist. Progressives are two faced hypocrites who claim to care about everyone but the bottom line is that they care about themselves.

Aren't you folks the same ones that are saying that there is no evidence on all the scandals, even when there is? Most of you are buying all the lame excuses being put out there by this adminstration. And they are using the same excuses for every scandal. Nobody knows, must have been low level employees, I did not see that email, I found out when I saw it in the news. Kinda like the kid telling the teacher the dog ate his homework.

I cant get over the Moron today on the tube. First off, he hasnt a CLUE what to say without something or someone there to prompt him. Uh..oh...ahhh..oh...duhhh..MORON. So that was first..then we get more lies about healthcare until..some reporter asks a planted question so Maximum Leader can read a prepared statement, in which he says no one is listening to your phone calls. Which of course...is most likely not true. Then he says if we cant trust the govt, we are going to have problems here. Really?? With scandal palozza happening..no accountability Obama regime thinks we might have problems?

You are really a horrible person.

Care to refute anything I stated??

Sure. You're wrong. First, he's not a moron. Second, there is no evidence - none - that anyone is listening in on the calls. Do you have any idea how much manpower that would take? All information indicates that this is nothing more than transactional information. That's potentially bad enough, but your comment is just paranoia. And members of congress were briefed, but then were sworn to secrecy. There's enough here to be worried about. You don't need to make up stuff.

Reply to Publius below...playing semantics? My statement said ALL members. Second...there was no evidence until today that ALL calls were being collected.

How about another false claim from Maximum Liar? That ALL members of Congress were briefed on the phone surveillance program....

And a reply to your reply to me. So you're saying that because there's no evidence that the calls are being listened to, they must be being listened to? You know, if you would crank down the rhetoric and stick to the facts, you might be more persuasive.

Publius, The FISA court was to monitor overseas calls, not to "data mine" and if they are just collecting numbers and not names and information, then why even do it? Throughout the Bush years, progressive constantly railed against the Patriot Act but now you want to give this administration a pass. Here is his official position statement which was followed up by a major speech from Obama in 2008: "Barack Obama believes that we must provide law enforcement the tools it needs to investigate, disrupt, and capture terrorists, but he also believes we need real oversight to avoid jeopardizing the rights and ideals of all Americans. There is no reason we cannot fight terrorism while maintaining our civil liberties. Unfortunately, the current administration has abused the powers given to it by the PATRIOT Act. A March 2007 Justice Department audit found the FBI improperly and, in some cases, illegally used the PATRIOT Act to secretly obtain personal information about American citizens. As president, Barack Obama would revisit the PATRIOT Act to ensure that there is real and robust oversight of tools like National Security Letters, sneak-and-peek searches, and the use of the material witness provision." So far he has not led as he promised.....

Trayvon Martin case goes to court....Lame Stream Media forgives and Forgets everything

When you cannot debate the message, name call always works, Not!

Do you understand what irony is? Gone's letter is nothing but name calling. All your letters are name calling and disrespectful. I have gardens to take care of and a life to lead so I will leave all of you to wallow in your hate. But please get out in the sunshine sometime and get some exercise and you will find there is more to life than making hateful comments and being miserable.

Reply to Tillie below..My letter was very critical of Mr Obama, elected official. Your letter was very critical of me...private citizen. Big difference.

The issue is not the program, which is necessary to track terrorists and prevent attacks. I do remember the left after 9/11 screaming about any program that Bush wanted to implement to keep us safe from airlines, wiretapping etc. They complained their freedoms were being abused. A program like this though does have the potential to be abused by whoever is in power. I am not saying it was by this adminstration. This adminstration has a corrupt DOJ and IRS. So it is no surprise that their credibility will be questioned at every turn. They also have a competence issue.

I'm sure Obama is as surprised as all of us are, after reading for the first time what his administration is doing.

""a program that has operated in the shadows for years, under President George W. Bush, and continued by President Obama"" you may have missed this sentence. Just another Bush program that Obama will be criticized for. Recession, massive job loss, jobs leaving the country, surveillance, just add it to the list.

Jim...Obama is in his 2nd term. That sentence you say I missed should have read...a program that has operated in the shadows for years, under President Obama, and continued by President Obama".

GWTW - every report I have seen or read said the program started under Bush. Yes it continued under Obama and I'm betting my money it will still continue. Congress appropriated money for the program so it was not some back room black opps mission. I'll never say Obama is even close to perfect but your hatred is so strong you won't even allow the truth in.

Reply to Jim below. The truth is, Obama lied to every American. Maybe the Monitor should conduct an interview with our all woman delegation, and ask them if they knew about this program, as Obama said they had.

How is it they knew NOTHING about the Boston Bombers.......how is that Obama security workin for ya?

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