FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2011 file photo, Chris Cioban, manager of the Verizon store in Beachwood, Ohio, holds up an Apple iPhone 4G. Britain's Guardian newspaper says the National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a secret court order. The newspaper said Wednesday, June 5, 2013 the order was issued in April and was good until July 19. The newspaper said the order requires Verizon on an 'ongoing, daily basis' to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries. / AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File
The White House says that gathering telephone records has been a “critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats,” responding to a news report that the National Security Agency has been harvesting records from millions of Verizon customers since at least April.
The information “allows counter-terrorism 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,” said a senior administration official.
The Britain-based Guardian newspaper obtained a secret court order requiring Verizon to turn over information on all domestic and international calls. The paper reported that “the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.”
It is not known how long the program has been going on, or whether other phone companies are involved.
Civil libertarians blasted the program as an abuse of the Constitution.
Former Vice President Al Gore tweeted: “In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?”
Aides to President Obama declined to discuss the program in detail, saying FISA court orders are classified.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government-collected information “does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.”
The program also undergoes periodic congressional and judicial reviews to prevent abuse, the official said.
The activities “are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties,” the official said.
Verizon is prohibited from publicly disclosing the court order or the FBI’s request on behalf of the NSA. “We decline comment,” Ed McFadden, a Washington-based Verizon spokesman, told The Guardian.
The Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement that the FISA court order may be “the broadest surveillance order” ever issued. “ It requires no level of suspicion and applies to all Verizon subscribers anywhere in the U.S.,” the center said. “It also contains a gag order prohibiting Verizon from disclosing information about the order to anyone other than their counsel.”
The center, which has filed a lawsuit against the government over these issues, said “we will continue to challenge the surveillance of Americans.”