WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — The government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order, according to the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration is defending the National Security Agency’s need to collect such records, but critics are calling it a huge over-reach.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters Thursday that the court order for telephone records, first disclosed by The Guardian newspaper in Britain, was a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice.
“I think people want the homeland kept safe to the extent we can,” Feinstein said at a Capitol Hill news conference. “We want to protect these privacy rights. That’s why this is carefully done in federal court with federal judges who sit 24/7 who review these requests.”
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said the program has already paid huge dividends.
“The reason they use this, and I can tell you why this program is important, that within the last few years, this program was used to stop a…terrorist attack in the United States, we know that,” Rep. Rogers said Thursday.
The disclosure raised a number of questions: What is the government looking for? Are other big telephone companies under similar orders to turn over information? How is the information used and how long are the records kept?
Separately, The Washington Post and The Guardian reported late Thursday the existence of another program used by the NSA and FBI that scours the nation’s main Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs to help analysts track a person’s movements and contacts. It was not clear whether the program, called PRISM, targets known suspects or broadly collects data from other Americans.
The companies include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. The Post said PalTalk has had numerous posts about the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. It also said Dropbox would soon be included.
CBS News senior correspondent John Miller is a former Deputy director of National Intelligence. Miller said the key to the Verizon data collection is not content but numbers that might link terrorists to U.S. citizens.
“Everybody at the NSA knows if they are listening in on American citizens without a very special order or ruling from their lawyers then they are going to jail,” Miller said Thursday on “CBS This Morning.”
Miller also explained how the use of records works.
“When you rub data against data, you get more results. Metadata is data about data. So if you’re watching 1,000 suspected terrorist numbers in Pakistan and Afghanistan and you want to mix that against a particular threat, you see that this number is in contact with 50 other numbers, but three of them are in the United States. Does that mean that a terrorist there has a cousin in Chicago?”
The sweeping roundup of U.S. phone records has been going on for years and was a key part of the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program, according to a U.S. official.