AFP – US intelligence agency collection of people’s telephone records is a critical tool to fight terrorism, the White House said Thursday in response to news reports of wide scale monitoring of this type.
A senior official in the administration of President Barack Obama did not explicitly confirm a reported court order allowing the practice, but seemed to acknowledge such monitoring is in fact going on.
The Guardian newspaper in London reported that mobile carrier Verizon is required to provide the National Security Agency daily with information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the United States and between the US and other countries.
The Guardian cited a top-secret court order issued in April, and said it had obtained a copy, which it reproduced online.
“The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk — regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing,” the Guardian report said.
The Washington Post quoted two former US officials as saying the order as reproduced by the Guardian looks authentic.
The Obama administration official, while apparently avoiding confirming specifically that such activity is going on, said information of the sort described in the article is a “critical tool” to protect America from terrorist threats.
The official said such information “allows counter-terrorism 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.”
Under the order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, the Guardian report explained.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had “granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19,” the paper reported.
The information was classed as metadata, it added.
The administration official, which noted that FISA court orders are classified, said the Guardian discusses “what purports to be an order issued by” that court.
The official said that “on its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls.”
The NSA, as part of a program secretly authorized by former president George W. Bush in October 2001, implemented a bulk collection of US telephone, Internet and email records.
In 2006, USA Today sent many jaws dropping when it reported that the NSA had “been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.”
It had been “using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity,” the paper reported.
“Until now, there has been no indication that the Obama administration implemented a similar program,” the Guardian report notes.