The White House has rushed to douse a new civil liberties furore following revelations that the US telephone giant Verizon had been ordered to hand over details of every call made by its customers to American intelligence services, saying it was a “critical tool” in protecting the nation from terrorist attacks.
A senior administration official today made no attempt to deny reports that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court was responsible for an order - dated April this year but apparently in place for seven years - compelling Verizon to give the National Security Agency information on all landline and mobile telephone calls made by customers of its Verizon Business unit, domestically and between the US and other countries.
The timing is delicate, however. The sweeping nature of the order, whereby data is culled in bulk from the company regardless of whether the customers are under suspicion of contacts with terror groups, will further galvanise critics who say that the administration is guilty of overreach in spying on its own citizens. It is all the more contentious as it follows recent revelations regarding the seizure of phone records of Associated Press reporters by the Justice Department as part of a leak probe.
In a statement to the media, the official asserted that information gathered in this case “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”.
That US government agencies monitor calls has been widely known ever since it emerged that warrantless wire-tapping was authorised by George W Bush. Information handed over in this case includes the phone numbers of both parties as well as location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the calls are not covered by the order, however.
Testifying before a Senate budget subcommittee, the Attorney General, Eric Holder denied the government could use the order also to spy on members of Congress or even members of the Supreme Court. Meawhile Congressman Mike Rogers said the practice had thwarted an attempted a terrorist attack on the US.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, suggested that the Verizon order was a fair tactic in the war on terror. “You keep up what you are dong and if you have gone outside the lane, you fix it,” he told Mr Holder.
Senator Diane Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Verizon had been under the same order since 2006. “As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the court under the business records section of the Patriot Act. Therefore, it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress,” she said.