NSA, Verizon surveillance program: What you need to know


The government has secretly amassed an enormous database of telephone call records. Here are the answers to some questions about the program:

Q: What information does the government have?

A: It has collected the equivalent of phone logs showing basic information on hundreds of millions of calls, including which number the call originated from, what number was dialed, when the call took place, how long it lasted, how it was routed and any telephone calling cards that may have been used. The collection covers all calls made within the U.S. as well as all calls into the U.S. from overseas.

Q: Does the information include the content of a call?

A. No. These are not wiretaps.

Q: How long has the government collected these data?

A. At least since 2006, on a continual basis, according to Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, respectively.


Q: How did this program become public?

A. The Guardian newspaper in Britain on Wednesday published a copy of a court order, issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which directed Verizon Business Network Services, the division of Verizon that primarily handles corporate telephone networks, to provide the government with phone records for three months, ending July 19. Feinstein, Chambliss and other senators confirmed on Thursday that the order was part of a continuing program that had been renewed every three months.

Q: Was anything known about this before?

A. USA Today disclosed in May 2006 that since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the National Security Agency had been gathering telephone number data from at least three major telephone carriers – AT&T;, Verizon and Bell South. Originally, the Bush program had been conducted without warrants or court oversight. What was not known until now was that the program had continued, apparently unabated throughout the Obama administration, nor was its breadth clear.

Q: Is Verizon the only carrier whose records the government has obtained?

A. Government officials have not directly answered that question because the program is classified, but it seems very unlikely that a program lasting for seven years would be directed at only one carrier, particularly since other carriers’ records had been involved previously.

Q: Is this legal?

A. Civil liberties groups have tried to challenge aspects of the government’s surveillance program without success. The administration takes the position that these searches are authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was first passed in 1978, and has been reauthorized and broadened several times since. In the last reauthorization, in December, the Senate turned down several amendments offered by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that would have narrowed the government’s authority. The law created a special court, based in Washington, which is made up of federal judges who regularly serve on other courts. The FISA court sits in secret to consider the government’s applications for surveillance warrants.

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Twitter: @davidlauter