A stunning report by the Guardian newspaper published late Wednesday evening reveals that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting the phone records of millions of Americans who are customers of Verizon, one of the nation’s largest telecom companies. The top-secret order, obtained by the paper, requires Verizon to submit to the NSA, “on an ongoing daily basis…all call details or ‘telephony metadata’ created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” Moreover, the paper reports that Americans’ communication records “are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk–regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.”
The parameters of the exposed surveillance program are indeed massive, indiscriminate and involve no conditions of probable cause or reasonable suspicion of terrorist activities. Judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) granted the order on April 25, directing Verizon to collect the data only until July 19, unless the blanket order is extended. The so-called “metadata” includes
comprehensive communications routing information, including but not limited to session identifying information (e.g. originating and terminating telephone number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number,etc.), trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call.
The content of the conversations are not covered. Neither is the name, address or financial information for a subscriber or customer. Yet the targets of this seizure — Americans — are clear in that the above order does not include calls made between foreigners. Furthermore, none of these limitations would stop the NSA from putting together a clear picture of who called who, how and when the call was made, and from what location.
Vinson’s order clearly states that while the application was initiated by the FBI, Verizon’s “Custodian of Records” shall turn the data over to the NSA. Yet section 2.3, “Collection of Information” included in “Executive Order 12333-United States Intelligence activities,” specifically limits the NSA’s collection of data to “foreign intelligence or counterintelligence” sources, further stipulating that data collection within the United States
shall be undertaken by the FBI or, when significant foreign intelligence is sought, by other authorized agencies of the Intelligence Community, provided that no foreign intelligence collection by such agencies may be undertaken for the purpose of acquiring information concerning the domestic activities of United States persons.
Thus, the NSA is in violation of its own charter.
Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties advocacy group, contends that, “absent some explanation I haven’t thought of, this looks like the largest assault on privacy since the N.S.A. wiretapped Americans in clear violation of the law” during the Bush administration. “On what possible basis has the government refused to tell us that it believes that the law authorizes this kind of request?” she asks.
On its face, however, the Obama administration’s cell phone surveillance is vastly more abusive than the Bush wiretapping program, which was leaked to the press in 2006 and discontinued in 2007. The Bush administration defended those efforts at the time, stressing that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls in connection to al Qaeda operatives and post-9/11 terrorism. “In other words,” Bush explained at the time, “one end of the communication must be outside the United States.” In 2007, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, affirming that a FISA court judge authorized the targeting of international communications where there was probable cause that “one of the communicants is a member or agent of al Qaeda, or an associated terrorist organization.”
Even the far-left ACLU recognizes the tremendous difference between the Bush-era and Obama-era programs. Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, noted, “In many ways it’s even more troubling than [Bush era] warrantless wiretapping, in part because the program is purely domestic,” he explains. “But this is also an indiscriminate dragnet. Say what you will about warrantless wiretapping, at least it was targeted at agents of Al Qaeda. This includes every customer of Verizon Business Services.”
Prior to publishing its revelations, the Guardian contacted the NSA, the White House and the Justice Department for comment. All of them declined to say anything. So did Verizon, but that is completely expected. The order expressly states that
no person shall disclose to any other person that the FBI or the NSA has sought or obtained tangible things under this order other than to: a) those persons to whom disclosure is necessary to comply with such Order; b) an attorney to obtain legal advice or assistance with respect to the production of things in response to the Order; or c) other persons as permitted by the Director of the FBI, or the Director’s designee.
As several news sources note, Verizon may represent the tip of the iceberg. It remains a distinct possibility that other phone carriers, as well as giant Internet entities such as Google, Facebook, or Microsoft or any other ISPs, may be under surveillance–and that such surveillance may have been taking place far longer than the three months granted in the specific order.
Furthermore, officials have been dishonest about the nature of these programs. On March 15, 2012, an article in Wired magazine chronicled the construction of the NSA’s top-secret Utah Data Center. The article also contended that the agency “has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens,” and “established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas.”
Five days later, during a budget hearing in Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) questioned NSA director general Keith Alexander about whether the agency was conducting the kind of domestic surveillance outlined in the article. During the ensuing exchange, Alexander denied the charge fourteen times, insisting that any and all domestic surveillance would have to be conducted by the FBI. “Within the United States, that would be the FBI lead,” responded Alexander. “If it were a foreign actor in the United States, the FBI would still have to lead. It could work that with NSA or other intelligence agencies as authorized. But to conduct that kind of collection in the United States it would have to go through a court order, and the court would have to authorize it. We’re not authorized to do it, nor do we do it.”
This latest revelation makes a mockery of that testimony.
On July 9, 2012, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) released a series of letters from major phone carriers responding to his demand they provide information on how often and under what circumstances they released information to the government. In addition to Verizon, companies such as Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, MetroPCS and Cricket revealed they had answered a staggering 1.3 million requests for data. Moreover, those requests represented annual increases of between 12 percent and 16 percent over the previous five years. “I never expected it to be this massive,” said Markey. ACLU attorney Chris Calebrese noted that much of that data collection, like the effort revealed by the Guardian on Wednesday, was completely indiscriminate. “Just the sheer volume of orders is amazing, but a significant chunk are dumps from entire cell towers,” he said at the time. “That means tons of people’s information is being grabbed with a single one of these orders.”
The latest court order seemingly confirms numerous, but vague, warnings issued by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) regarding the scope of the Obama administration’s surveillance efforts. For more than two years, both these members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have been sounding the alarm regarding the “secret legal interpretations” used by the administration to justify a level of domestic surveillance so broad, Americans would be “stunned” by the revelations.
Yet as recently as March 12, 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denied any such domestic surveillance was taking place in an exchange with Sen. Wyden:
Senator Ron Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any kind of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
Clapper: “No, sir.”
Wyden: “It does not?”
Clapper: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently, perhaps…”
Late yesterday afternoon, White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended the administration’s efforts. “The intelligence community is conducting court-authorized intelligence activities pursuant to public statute with the knowledge and oversight of Congress,” he contended. A senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity, also justified the effort. “Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it 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,” he argued.
Members of both political parties supported that contention. “It’s called protecting America,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). “If we didn’t do it, we’d be crazy,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-NC).
However, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who introduced the Patriot Act in 2001, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing precisely the opposite, a viewpoint undoubtedly shared by many Americans. “I do not believe the released FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act,” he wrote. “How could the phone records of so many innocent Americans be relevant to an authorized investigation as required by the Act?” In a press release accompanying the letter he made it clear where he stood. “Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American,” it stated.
The NSA clearly exceeded its legal mandate. The dishonest statements of officials involved with the program indicate the government was aware of the bounds it was overstepping. But the dishonesty is dual in nature. While the Obama administration has been declaring the war on terror dead and gone, a relic of a bygone era, it has been secretly implementing extraordinary measures against Americans, and it has done so on the basis of the dire exigencies of the jihadist threat. And while posturing, as always, as a “progressive” force, this leftist administration is, once again, engaging in “Big-Brother” 1984-style tactics — revealing, in true leftist tradition, that inside every liberal is a totalitarian screaming to get out. The scandal-ridden atmosphere has become so rotten and disturbing that even the New York Times has noted that this is an administration that has lost all credibility.
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