For years, civil liberties groups have alleged that the United States was engaged in "dragnet" surveillance of Americans' phone calls. But because U.S. surveillance activity is shrouded in secrecy, they haven't had proof.
Now they appear to. A major scoop from Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian appears to prove that the National Security Agency has been demanding that Verizon produce calling records of all phone calls made in the United States.
The leaked legal order requires Verizon to produce, "on an ongoing daily basis," records of calls "between the United States and abroad" as well as "wholly within the United States, including local calls." The data sought by the NSA includes "originating and terminating telephone numbers," and the time and duration of each call. The order does not request the contents of the calls.
The four-page order is dated April 25 and signed by Judge Roger Vinson, a judge of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It is marked "top secret" and is due to expire on July 19 unless it is renewed. It bans Verizon from disclosing the order to anyone other than those employees needed to comply with the order and an attorney.
"This confirms what we had long suspected," says Cindy Cohn, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties organization that has long accused the government of operating a secret dragnet surveillance program. "We've been suing over this since 2006."
The order is based on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows law enforcement to obtain a wide variety of "business records," including calling records. EFF has long criticized Section 215, which sets a threshold for obtaining records much lower than the "probable cause" standard required to get a search warrant.
But Cohn argues that the kind of dragnet surveillance suggested by the Verizon order exceeds even the authority granted by the Patriot Act. "Section 215 is written as if they're going after individual people based on individual investigations," she says. In contrast, the order leaked to the Guardian affects "millions and millions of innocent people. There's no way all of our calling records are relevant to a terrorism investigation."
"I don't think Congress thought it was authorizing dragnet surveillance" when it passed the Patriot Act, Cohn says. "I don't think Americans think that's OK. I would be shocked if the majority of congressmen thought it's okay."
"I don't think the government's been getting away with this because everybody thinks they're right," she argues. Rather, it's because "they've kept the details sufficiently secret" to prevent public discussion of the program.
Cohn believes the Verizon order is part of a program that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) began warning the public about in 2011. "Most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act," Wyden wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. last year. But until now he has been legally prohibited from sharing details of the government's secret program.
The White House said late Wednesday that it had no comment, and attempts to reach Verizon for comment were unsuccessful.