(CNN) — The U.S. government has obtained a top secret court order that requires Verizon to turn over the telephone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency on an “ongoing daily basis,” the UK-based Guardian newspaper reported.
The four-page order, which The Guardian published on its website Wednesday, requires the communications giant to turn over “originating and terminating” telephone numbers as well as the location, time and duration of the calls — and demands that the order be kept secret.
If genuine, it gives the NSA blanket access to the records of millions of Verizon customers’ domestic and foreign phone calls made between April 25, when the order was signed, and July 19, when it expires.
While the report infuriated people across the country — former Vice President Al Gore called the idea “obscenely outrageous” — a senior official in the Obama administration defended the idea of such an order early Thursday.
Without acknowledging whether the order exists, the administration official emphasized that such an order does not include collection of “the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.”
“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,” the unnamed official said in a written statement to media.
The official also insisted that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorizes intelligence collection. Activities “are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties.”
Verizon spokesman Edward McFadden declined to comment on the report.
The NSA told CNN it will respond “as soon as we can.”
The order also notes that the court agreed to allow the FBI to collect the data. The FBI did not respond to a CNN request for comment.
Democrat slams ‘government overreach’
“While I cannot corroborate the details of this particular report, this sort of widescale surveillance should concern all of us and is the kind of government overreach I’ve said Americans would find shocking,” said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Udall and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last year slamming the government’s “secret interpretations of public laws.”
Focusing on a part of the Patriot Act that allows the government to gather records, they wrote, “As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.”
Gore, in a tweet following the Guardian report, wrote, “In the digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?”
The order does not say why the request was made, but it bans the government and Verizon from making the contents public.
It says the order will be declassified in April 2038.