The order, which was signed by a judge from the secret court that oversees domestic surveillance, was first reported on the Web site of the Guardian newspaper. The Web site reproduced a copy of the order, which two former U.S. officials told The Washington Post appears to be authentic.
A senior Obama administration official said Thursday that the purported order “does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls” but relates only to “metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.” The official said such information “has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.”
The official added that “all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection” under the secret court, and Congress “is regularly and fully briefed” on how the information is used.
If the document published by the Guardian is genuine, it could represent the broadest surveillance order known to have been issued. It also would confirm long-standing suspicions of civil liberties advocates about the sweeping nature of U.S. surveillance through commercial carriers under laws passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
An expert in this aspect of the law said Wednesday night that the order appears to be a routine renewal of a similar order first issued by the same court in 2006. The expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said that the order is reissued routinely every 90 days and that it is not related to any particular investigation by the FBI or any other agency.
The expert referred to such orders as “rubber stamps” sought by the telephone companies to protect themselves after the disclosure in 2005 that widespread warrantless wiretaps could leave them liable for damages.
The order falls under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the government to make broad demands on telephone carriers for information about calls. In this case, the order requires Verizon to provide “ongoing, daily” information about “all call detail records . . . created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad; or wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”
The FBI, which apparently sought the order, declined to comment. Spokesmen for Verizon and the court also declined to comment.
But civil liberties groups were quick to criticize the sweeping nature of the order.
“This is a truly stunning revelation,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “This suggests that the government has been compiling a comprehensive record of Americans’ associations and possibly even their whereabouts.”