The National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of Verizon customers in the U.S., NPR has confirmed.
The controversial broadening of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's powers after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks is under renewed focus after Wednesday's report that the panel has given the National Security Agency the authority to collect millions of telephone records.
On Morning Edition, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston discussed how "after 9/11, the FISA court's purview was broadened." The court was then given the power to issue secret orders that grant NSA the authority to demand that phone companies hand over "any tangible thing relevant to foreign intelligence or a terrorism investigation," she said.
Until now, it was thought that such orders had almost always been tied to the collection of phone records related to a specific person or target. But Dina says the order uncovered Wednesday (first by The Guardian) has given the NSA "blanket authority to pick up telephone and data business records either in the U.S. between two U.S. numbers of between a U.S. and a foreign [number]."
As we reported late Wednesday, the order, granted on April 25, gives the government the power to obtain the information for a three-month period that ends July 19. The NSA collects the data for the FBI. It is not known if similar orders have been issued that allow the collection of such data from other phone companies.
The NSA and FBI are not getting information about the content of conversations. But they are collecting data such as phone numbers, the location of calls, their duration and other key information.
Dina noted that Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado have previously expressed concern about a "secret interpretation of the Patriot Act that would stun the American people." It's possible, she said, that the senators were referring to the broader authority to collect information about Americans.
As for why law enforcement officials want to know so much, Dina reported that her law enforcement sources would not offer specifics. April 25 was six days after the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings engaged in a gun battle with police — one was killed and the other was later captured. Her sources would not confirm that there's a connection, Dina said, but "didn't steer us away from that ... [and] said the timing probably isn't coincidental." At that time, investigators were trying to trace the suspects' cellphone and Internet activity.
Obama administration officials so far have declined to speak on the record about the information collection. Off-the-record, as The Associated Press reports, the Obama administration "on Thursday defended the National Security Agency's need to collect telephone records of U.S. 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 newspaper report that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top secret court order."
That official, in a statement also relayed to NPR, added that "activities authorized under the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] Act 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 news about the collection of phone records comes as the Obama administration is also under fire because:
— The Internal Revenue Service targeted some conservative groups for extra scrutiny in recent years.
— The Justice Department has pursued the phone records of Fox News and AP reporters during leak investigations.
So, watch for critics to say this is another example of government overreach and invasion of privacy.