Obama administration admits seizing phone records

Obama administration admits collecting huge amount of telephone information after British newspaper reveals Verizon court order

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 1:50am

The Obama administration yesterday acknowledged that it is collecting a massive amount of telephone records from at least one carrier, reopening the debate over privacy even as it defended the practice as necessary to protect Americans against attack.

The admission comes after Britain's The Guardian newspaper published a secret court order related to the records of millions of Verizon Communications customers on its website.

A senior administration official did not specifically confirm the report, but noted the published court order pertains only to data such as a telephone number or the length of a call, and not the subscribers' identities or the content of the telephone calls.

The order requires the government to turn over so-called "metadata" such as a list of numbers that called other US or international numbers as well as other transactional information on the time and location of calls.

Such information is "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States," the official said.

"It allows counter-terrorism 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," the official added.

The revelation raises fresh concerns about President Barack Obama's handling of privacy and free-speech issues. His administration is already under fire for searching Associated Press journalists' calling records and the e-mails of a Fox television reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.

The three-month court order, dated April 25, directs Verizon's Business Network Services Inc and Verizon Business Services units to hand over daily electronic data until July 19.

It was issued one week after US law enforcement officials tracked down the two brothers suspected of carrying out the deadly Boston Marathon bombing on April 15.

The order expressly compels Verizon to turn over both international calling records and domestic records, and refers to mobile and landline numbers, according to The Guardian's copy, which was labelled "top secret". Verizon has so far declined to comment.

The admission highlights US intelligence officials' ongoing campaign of domestic surveillance launched under George W. Bush's administration after the September 11, 2001, attack.

Civil liberty groups reacted with outrage at the news. "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," said Jameel Jaffer, of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Former vice-president Al Gore tweeted: "In [this] digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse