Verizon Forced to Turn Over Phone Records?

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Photo credit: Rich Brooks/CNN

By Josh Levs and Chelsea Carter, CNN

(CNN) — The U.S. government has obtained a top-secret court order requiring Verizon to turn over what could amount to millions of Americans’ telephone records on an “ongoing daily basis,” the UK-based Guardian newspaper reported.

The four-page order, which The Guardian published on its website Wednesday, requires the communications giant to hand over “originating and terminating” telephone numbers as well as the location, time and duration of the calls — and demands that the order be kept secret.

The order applies to Verizon Business Network Services. It was not immediately clear how many phone records it covers. Verizon does not describe its Business Network Services operation on its website.

The Guardian said the order involves “millions of U.S. customers of Verizon.”

“The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk — regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing,” the article says.

The court allowed both the FBI and NSA to obtain the records, which include domestic and foreign phone calls between April 25 and July 19.

The FBI and the NSA did not comment.

While the report infuriated people across the country — former Vice President Al Gore called the idea “obscenely outrageous” — a senior official in the Obama administration defended the idea of such an order early Thursday.

Without acknowledging whether the order exists, the administration official emphasized that such an order does not include collection of “the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.”

“Information of the sort described in the Guardian article 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,” the unnamed official said in a written statement to media.

The official also insisted that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorizes intelligence collection. Activities “are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties.”

Verizon Vice President Randy Milch, in a note to employees, said the company had no comment on the report. He emphasized that the order published compels the company to respond, forbids its revealing the order’s existence, and says the company will not provide the contents of communication “or the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer.”

“Verizon continually takes steps to safeguard its customers’ privacy,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, the law authorizes the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances, and if Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply.

Democrat slams ‘government overreach’

“While I cannot corroborate the details of this particular report, this sort of widescale surveillance should concern all of us and is the kind of government overreach I’ve said Americans would find shocking,” said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Udall and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last year slamming the government’s “secret interpretations of public laws.”

Focusing on a part of the Patriot Act that allows the government to gather records, they wrote, “As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.”

Gore, in a tweet following the Guardian report, wrote, “In the digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?”

The order does not say why the request was made, but it bans the government and Verizon from making the contents public.

It says the order will be declassified in April 2038.

Analyst: How the order might help fight terrorism

Former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes, a CNN contributor, suggested one way such an order might help fight terrorism.

“If a phone number comes up being connected to someone of suspicion, then (investigators) can go back and look at all of the numbers that phone number called or was called by, how long the calls were, what location the calls were made from, that type of information,” he said on CNN’s “Starting Point.”

“It’s not that someone or some group of analysts can sit there and monitor 50 million phone calls going through the computers. But it would create the ability to go back and see if you could connect phone calls.”

For example, he said, it could allow investigators to go back and look at phone records of Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Normally, phone companies would not maintain those records for long due to storage capacity, Fuentes said. With such an order, the records will be maintained by the NSA and “held for future investigations.”

In order to collect the information, the government has to demonstrate that it’s “relevant” to an international terrorism investigation, according to Jimmy Gurule, a former U.S. official who served as assistant attorney general and undersecretary for enforcement at the Treasury Department.

“The question is how the phone data of tens of millions of Americans is ‘relevant’ to a terrorism investigation. This is clearly an overreach by the NSA and an apparent rubber stamp by the FISA court,” added Gurule, currently a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

‘Beyond Orwellian’

Some organizations that track privacy issues say they’re unaware of the government having ever taken such sweeping action.

“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 Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union called for an immediate end to the order and a congressional investigation.

“It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.

“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 is not the first time such an action has been taken.

In 2006, it was revealed that the NSA was secretly collecting telephone records as part of an effort to root out potential terror plots.

At that time, Verizon denied reports that it was providing the NSA with data from customers’ domestic calls. The company said that while it is committed to helping the government protect against terrorist attacks, “we will always make sure that any assistance is authorized by law and that our customers’ privacy is safeguarded.”

The news about the Verizon order comes as the Obama administration is under fire following revelations that the Justice Department seized two months of telephone records of a number of Associated Press reporters and editors, saying the requests were part of an investigation into the leak of classified information.

Justice officials haven’t specified the leak that triggered the investigation, but the AP has said it believes the investigation focuses on its account of a foiled plot to bomb a U.S. airliner in May 2012.

— CNN’s Adam Levine, Jake Tapper, Carol Cratty, William Mears, Brianna Keilar and Sara Pratley contributed to this report.