WASHINGTON — The federal government has amassed a database for at least seven years containing details on virtually every telephone call made within the United States or between this country and telephones abroad, officials said Thursday, providing the first glimpse of a vast secret domestic surveillance operation.
The data collected include the phone numbers involved, the time, date and duration of calls and the route a call takes through telephone networks. Officials emphasized that the effort did not include listening to conversations. The National Security Agency stores the data and can use it to detect patterns of calls that might provide intelligence about terrorist activity, officials said.
In addition, if investigators have "reasonable, articulable suspicion" that a phone number is part of a terrorist network, the government can seek a court warrant to search the database for calls connected to that number, according to several senators who have been briefed on the highly classified program.
The database can only be used for counter-terrorism investigations, not for routine criminal cases, the officials added.
Separately, Britain's Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post revealed Thursday the existence of another secret program that allows the government to snoop in the central files of Internet companies.
The program, code-named PRISM, allows the NSA to search files on virtually all major Internet platforms for emails, videos, photographs, audio files and other documents relevant to investigations of terrorism, espionage or nuclear proliferation, the Post said. The searches are supposed to focus on foreign data, but inevitably collect some information belonging to Americans, it said.
Civil liberties advocates denounced the telephone intelligence-gathering operation as an unprecedented intrusion into Americans' personal business.
"The program could hardly be any more alarming. It's a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under constant surveillance of government agents,"
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
But senior members of both parties defended the telephone data mining in uncompromising terms, saying that congressional committees repeatedly had been briefed on it, that legal safeguards had been put in place in recent years and that the surveillance had helped foil terrorism plots.
"Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "We know that. It's important." He said his committee would seek to declassify the details of the incident he cited.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the country faced continued terrorist threats, and the surveillance was designed "to ferret this out before it happens."
"It's called protecting America," she said.
White House officials emphasized that the telephone data mining had been approved by the special 11-judge court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, and had regular oversight by Congress.
The database was first revealed by the Guardian newspaper, which published a copy of an order from FISA directing a unit of Verizon to provide information to the NSA on all calls passing through its system for a three-month period ending July 19. Although the order covered only a single three-month period and one telephone carrier, officials made it clear Thursday that it was part of a continuing program, and strongly suggested that similar directives covered most, perhaps all, phone carriers.
The newspaper did not say how it obtained the order, which was labeled "top secret" and was not to be declassified until 2038. It appeared to be the first order from the secretive court ever published without authorization.
As members of Congress reassured voters that the government's spying on them had been conducted within strict limits, they provided fresh details of the classified program. Most important, they disclosed that the operation had been going nonstop since 2006, beginning in the George W. Bush administration and continuing unabated under President Obama.
"As far as I know, this is [an] exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years," Feinstein told reporters.
"What we're doing is we're trying to data mine," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "What we're trying to do is look at the database in America of phone numbers, and match them up with people we know that are in the terrorist business."
"We know certain parts of the world are terrorist-rich environments," he said. "When you get a hit, where you're finding, 'Hey this phone number from this part of the tribal regions [is] calling somebody in South Carolina,'" — then the FBI can seek a warrant to monitor that number.
"It's since Bush we've been doing this," he added. "We're getting better at it."
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said the phone numbers in the database "are basically ferreted out by a computer, but if there's a number that matches a terrorist number that has been dialed by a U.S. number, or dialed from a terrorist to a U.S. number, then that may be flagged."
Once a number gets flagged, the government may seek a court order for further information. "But that's the only time this information is ever used in any kind of substantive way," he said.
The disclosures could cause new problems for the Obama administration, already under fire for secretly obtaining telephone records and emails of reporters in national security investigations.
But support from lawmakers in both parties could mute any difficulty.
So, too, could a wide-open split among Republicans that was most visible in a long-distance exchange between Graham and Paul, one of the Senate's most outspoken critics of government surveillance efforts.
Paul called the program "an astounding assault on the Constitution."
Graham lashed back, saying that "in Rand Paul's world you almost have no defenses against terrorism."
"I am more threatened by the radical Islamists than I am by the government agencies that are trying to protect us," he said.
In 2006, when USA Today disclosed that the Bush administration had collected telephone records of millions of Americans without a court order, then-Sen. Obama said in a speech on the Senate floor that a president must put such surveillance "within the rule of law."
On Thursday, a spokesman said Obama had done that. "The intelligence community is conducting court-authorized intelligence activities pursuant to a public statute with the knowledge and oversight of Congress and the intelligence community in both houses of Congress," White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. The data collection "has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats," he added.
Civil liberties groups deny that FISA authorizes the wholesale surveillance revealed Thursday, but they have been unable to challenge the program in court.
Justice Department lawyers have used procedural barriers and claims of secrecy to thwart several lawsuits. Individuals have little opportunity to contest government efforts to obtain telephone records because courts consider the information to be the property of the phone companies, not of individual subscribers.
FISA, first passed by Congress in 1978, established the special court that considers secret requests from the government for surveillance orders. The court's members are federal judges picked by the Supreme Court's chief justice. Critics say it is overly deferential to the government and almost never rejects a surveillance request.
The law has been broadened several times since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, including a major expansion made by the Patriot Act. The changes have all aimed to give the government more authority to obtain telephone records and other information. Last year the Senate rejected three amendments to FISA designed to limit the government's surveillance powers.
In 2011, Udall and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned that the government had secretly spied on Americans far more broadly than the public knew, but said that they could not discuss the details without disclosing classified information.
"Today the American people do not know how their government interprets the language of the Patriot Act," Wyden said then. "Someday they are going to find out, and a lot of them are going to be stunned."
Kathleen Hennessey, Lisa Mascaro, Michael A. Memoli, Christi Parsons and Richard A. Serrano in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.