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"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, R-Wis., 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.Next Page >
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