Administration defends NSA grab of Verizon customer phone calls

The Obama administration on Thursday defended the National Security Agency’s use of a secret court order to collect telephone records from millions of Verizon customers.

The NSA has been collecting Verizon's records on millions of calls since April 25, according to the court order. 

The information provided to the NSA did not include the content of conversations or customers’ identities but covered telephone numbers used and the length of calls. 

An administration official defended the collection of data as a “critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States,” and leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said their colleagues were informed of the practice. They also said it had been continuing since 2007, when it was launched under the Bush administration.

“Everyone’s been aware of it for years, every member of the Senate,” said Sen. Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissWyden hammers CIA chief over Senate spying Cruz is a liability Inside Paul Ryan’s brain trust MORE (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinLawmakers praise bonus-clawback suspension, pledge permanent fix Defense chief pledges to 'resolve' bonus clawback issue California National Guard official: Congress knew about bonus repayments MORE (D-Calif.), the panel's chairwoman, said she was unsure the extent to which metadata helped foil terrorist plots, but added "that terrorists will come after us if they can and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence.” 

It is unclear if other carriers were also subject to court orders. The order for Verizon banned the company from discussing the matter, and other carriers, such as AT&T and T-Mobile, have not commented.

The administration official said the practice allowed the government to monitor suspected terrorists.

“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 administration official said. 

Other lawmakers said they did not know of the program, and criticized the grabbing of records. 

The issue appeared to split both parties, with some Republicans and Democrats backing it and others offering criticism.

Democratic Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySanders warns Clinton: Don't rush to compromise with GOP Overnight Healthcare: Top ObamaCare lobbyists reject 'public option' push | Groups sound alarm over Medicare premium hike Top ObamaCare lobbyists reject 'public option' push MORE (Ore.) denounced the move as an "outrageous breach of Americans' privacy" in a statement on Thursday, while Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? MORE (R-Ky.) called it "an astounding assault on the Constitution."

The news that the administration has been conducting secret surveillance on millions of ordinary citizens comes amid intensifying scrutiny over the DOJ’s spying on Associated Press and Fox News reporters, delivering another blow to President Obama’s already bruised reputation on civil liberties.

“From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents,” Jameel Jaffer, the American Civil Liberties Union's deputy legal director, said in a statement.

“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," he added. 

The news was first reported by The Guardian newspaper, which on Wednesday published the court order that required Verizon to provide the security agency with information on all customers’ phone calls, including those not suspected of wrongdoing.

The order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court covered all Verizon calls from April 25 to July 19. 

The administration official defending the NSA's actions emphasized that the court order did not allow the government to listen in on calls but only to monitor the length of calls and to whom they were made.

“The order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls," the administration official said Thursday. 

“The information acquired does not include 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.”

ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson called the program unconstitutional and pressed lawmakers to investigate the matter.

The ACLU said the program stemmed from a controversial provision in the Patriot Act that allows agencies to obtain “business records” to further intelligence investigations. 

Sens. Ron WydenRon WydenDem pushes Treasury for info on Syria sanctions The holy grail of tax policy Senators urge resolution of US, Canada softwood lumber deal MORE (D-Ore.) and Mark UdallMark UdallColorado GOP Senate race to unseat Dem incumbent is wide open Energy issues roil race for Senate Unable to ban Internet gambling, lawmakers try for moratorium MORE (D-Colo.), members of the Intelligence Committee, in 2011 said the NSA was using the Patriot Act to collect information on Americans.

They suggested the Obama administration was going much further than what they believed the law allowed. 

"When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry," Wyden and Udall wrote in a letter last year to Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderSenior House Republicans fighting for their lives Issa hits back at Obama over campaign mailer Podesta floated Bill Gates, Bloomberg as possible Clinton VPs MORE.

This story was posted at 8:21 a.m. and last updated at 12:19 p.m.