Administration: NSA phone record collection vital to fighting terrorism

The Obama administration says the collection of phone records from millions of Verizon phone customers has been indispensable in the war on terror, fighting back against critics who contend it goes too far.

The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald on Wednesday evening broke the news that the administration has secured a secret order granting it access to all records of phone calls made on the Verizon network, which could be the broadest surveillance order ever reported. The White House, though, says it's necessary and prevents acts of terror.

"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," said a senior administration official, granted anonymity to discuss the matter before an official response is issued.

The collection of phone records has earned the ire of civil liberties advocates -- including some Democrats.

Former vice president Al Gore late Wednesday tweeted that the surveillance is "obscenely outrageous," and Senate Intelligence Committee member Mark Udall (D-Colo.) expressed his outrage as well.

"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," Udall said in a statement.

In a lengthy statement, the administration official didn't appear to take issue with the Guardian report -- which is based on a court document the Guardian also published -- but emphasized that the order does not allow the government to listen to the phone calls.

Here's the full statement:

The article discusses what purports to be an order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes the production of business records. Orders of the FISA Court are classified. On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls. The information acquired does not include 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.

As we have publicly stated before, all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congress passed that act and is regularly and fully briefed on how it is used, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizes such collection. There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That regime has been briefed to and approved by the Court. And, activities authorized under the Act 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.

Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Philip Rucker · June 6, 2013