FOI Daily Dose: Feds obtain broad phone records for Verizon customers

Think The Associated Press and Fox News were the only ones whose phone records are watched by federal officials?  Think again. If you have a Verizon phone, you can add your name to the list.

A top secret court order issued in April grants the National Security Agency (NSA) a three-month window to collect phone records for any and all of Verizon’s millions of customers, including those who aren’t suspected of wrongdoing.

The order, approved through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) judge, expires July 19, but until then, it mandates that all calls are monitored on an “ongoing, daily basis,” according to the Guardian, which broke the story the evening of June 5.

A September 2012 Statistic Brain report shows that Verizon connects an average of 1 billion calls per day, and the government can monitor all calls within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

Although feds won’t be listening in on your conversations, the order allows them to see the numbers of both parties on a call, as well as the call location, duration and “unique identifiers,” the Guardian said. They can also track the time and duration of all calls you make.

Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald explains that this order shows for the first time that the Obama administration’s domestic surveillance rivals the Bush-era exploits into domestic telephone, Internet and email records authorized in 2001 to protect what the former administration called “national security interests” after the 9/11 terror attacks.

But Greenwald notes that the Obama administration’s Verizon surveillance is “extremely unusual” because FISA court orders typically monitor a “specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.”

Even those who typically support the president took to Twitter last night when the report came out, including former Vice President Al Gore who called it “obscenely outrageous.”

The Guardian said so far the NSA, the White House, the Justice Department and Verizon have declined comment. It is unknown whether other cell-phone providers have similar orders, but in a news conference on June 6, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) confirmed Verizon’s order is a three month renewal of ongoing practice, the Huffington Post reports.

More than anything, Greenwald’s article emphasized the current administration’s “extreme interpretation of the law” to exploit American privacy without the American people even realizing it.

For watchdog journalists, it’s only the latest federal tug on our leash, reminding us the government still has its hold on private communications, and its grasp might be stronger than we imagine.

Greenwald points to “numerous cryptic public warnings” from U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Co.) who have said the administration’s domestic surveillance power is so broad the American public would be “stunned” to learn its scope.

The New York Times reported that the legality of this type of domestic surveillance falls under the “hotly debated” Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Wyden and Udall disagree with the discrepancy in the way the Obama administration described Section 215 as a way to obtain a grand jury subpoena for business records in an ordinary criminal investigation and then secretly use the section to make it easier for the NSA to get a FISA court order to obtain any “business records” (from companies like Verizon) by proving that they were “relevant” to a national-security investigation.

The senators wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder complaining that this secret interpretation was misleading, saying: “There is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.”

But in 2011, the Justice Department denied misleading the public about the Patriot Act, according to the New York Times.

The Times said it filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2011 for a report describing the government’s interpretation of its Patriot Act surveillance powers.

But Times reporters Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt explain: “The Obama administration withheld the report, and a judge dismissed the case.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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