The National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order issued in April, according to a report Wednesday evening in the Guardian newspaper.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, a publication in the United Kingdom, requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.
The order is in force until July 19, according to the court order. The left-leaning British newspaper said the order was granted to the FBI on April 25.
The document indicates that the Obama administration is collecting phone records of millions of citizens in bulk, whether or not they are suspected of wrongdoing. The order was signed by Judge Roger Vinson of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to the document posted online by the Guardian.
A spokeswoman for the White House national security council declined to comment on the report Wednesday night.
Former Vice President Al Gore commented on his Twitter account: "In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"
And the ACLU's deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, said the program "could hardly be more alarming."
"It's a program in which millions of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents," Mr. Jaffer said. "It's analogous to the FBI stationing an agent outside every home in the country to track who goes in and who comes out. It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies."
It was not immediately clear why the order singles out Verizon for a general seizure of records and does not mention AT&T, Sprint or other major cellphone providers.
The order states says Verizon "shall produce to the National Security Agency (NSA) upon service of this Order, and continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this Order ... an electronic copy of the following tangible things: all call detail records or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."
As word of the court order broke Wednesday evening, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in an interview that the government needs to strike a better balance between press freedom and safeguarding national secrets.
"I'm a little concerned that things have gotten a little out of whack," Mr. Holder told NBC. "I think that we can do a better job than we have. We can reform those regulations, reform those guidelines, to better reflect that balance."
Mr. Holder is under fire for wide-ranging investigations of the news media in an effort to determine the source of leaks of sensitive government information.
A government watchdog, the Center for Constitutional Rights, condemned the report of the unprecedented NSA surveillance.
"As far as we know this order from the FISA court is the broadest surveillance order to ever have been issued: it requires no level of suspicion and applies to all Verizon subscribers anywhere in the U.S.," the group said. "It also contains a gag order prohibiting Verizon from disclosing information about the order to anyone other than their counsel."
The Center, based in New York, said several senators have questioned the Patriot Act's constitutionality in such cases.
"The Patriot Act provision requires the FBI to notify Congress about the number of such warrants, but this single order covering millions of people is a deceptive end-run around that disclosure requirement," the group said.
(Corrected paragraph:) ACLU Legislative Counsel Michelle Richardson called for an immediate end to the program, saying it exposed "the growing gap between the public's and the government's understandings" of modern surveillance.
"Congress should initiate a full investigation," she added.
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