WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is defending the government's secret seizure of millions of domestic telephone records from Verizon, saying the data collection program “has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.”
A senior administration official released a statement Thursday after the British newspaper The Guardian first reported the secret operation. The paper posted on its website a classified court order that requires the telecommunications company to turn over daily records with the length, location and time of individual phone calls, as well as phone numbers.
The official did not confirm the existence of the order, which is marked "Top Secret." It was issued in late April by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court that meets in Washington, and allowed the government to collect the bulk data until July 19. It's unclear if the 90-day order was a renewal of a standing request.
"The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber," the official said. "It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.
The official said telephone data "allows counterterrorism 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.”
The official requested anonymity to discuss the counterterrorism program.
President Obama has come under increasing criticism from civil liberties groups and others who accuse the White House of masking government action in unnecessary secrecy.
The criticism has generally focused on the lack of transparency about targeted killings of suspected terrorists and militants overseas. It intensified recently after the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed telephone records from the Associated Press, and obtained a warrant to examine emails of a Fox News reporter.
In defending the data collection program, the administration official sought to spread responsibility, noting that “all three branches” of government were tasked with review and oversight of surveillance.
The court order was authorized under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the government to collect business records in bulk if its requests are approved by the FISA court.
"There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," the official said. He said that involves oversight by the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA court.