U.S. phone companies never once challenged NSA data requests

September 18, 2013

Verizon didn't contest court orders for user data. (Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES)

None of the phone companies that handed over communications metadata in bulk to the National Security Agency ever challenged the agency on its data requests, a newly declassified government document shows.

In a formerly secret memo published by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the judicial body responsible for approving the NSA's surveillance — Judge Claire Eagen reveals that "to date, no holder of records who has received an Order to produce bulk telephony metadata has challenged the legality of such an Order ... despite the explicit statutory mechanism for doing so."

Section 215 of the Patriot Act has been interpreted by the NSA to authorize the blanket seizure of millions of U.S. phone records. The law allows court orders issued under Section 215 to be contested if the recipient can prove that the data request is unreasonably broad.

Silicon Valley has been known to take advantage of a similar mechanism in response to other types of data requests. In the 2000s, Yahoo tried to resist a court order on Fourth Amendment grounds but failed, leading it to become, according to the New York Times, one of the handful of companies participating in the PRISM program. The legal action was kept secret because of the gag order that accompanies NSA data requests.

Tech companies including Google and Microsoft are now suing the government for permission to talk more openly about the FISA court orders.

Unlike the tech firms, however, it now appears that the telephone providers never once resisted the NSA. Speaking in Tokyo on Tuesday, a top Verizon exec dismissed Google and Microsoft's suits as "grandstanding."

"The laws are not set by Verizon; they are set by the governments in which we operate," said John Stratton, president of Verizon Enterprise Solutions. "I think it's important for us to recognize that we participate in debate, as citizens, but as a company I have obligations that I am going to follow."

The newly released FISA document also appears to gloss over how Congress was notified about the surveillance programs. It suggests that members of Congress had ample opportunity to review the NSA's activities before reauthorizing the relevant sections of the Patriot Act — something the Obama administration also has repeated:

In light of the importance of the national security programs that were set to expire, the Executive Branch and relevant congressional committees worked together to ensure that each Member of Congress knew or had the opportunity to know how Section 215 was being implemented under this Court's Orders. Documentation and personnel were also made available to afford each Member full knowledge of the scope of the implementation of Section 215 and the underlying legal interpretation.

However, we also know that Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, withheld a letter from fellow members that would have explained the programs in detail. In its newly declassified document, the FISA court simply accepts that lawmakers were suitably informed when many have publicly disagreed. Last month, Rep. Justin Amash posted on Facebook that "the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence did NOT, in fact, make the 2011 document available to Representatives in Congress, meaning that the large class of Representatives elected in 2010 did not receive either of the now declassified documents detailing these programs."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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