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.
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 ChamblissGOP hopefuls crowd Georgia special race Democrats go for broke in race for Tom Price's seat Spicer: Trump will 'help the team' if needed in Georgia special election MORE (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinComey to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee House cyber chairman wants to bolster workforce Trump, lower court nominees need American Bar Association review 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 MerkleyOvernight Energy: Trump orders review of national monuments, claiming ‘egregious abuse’ Overnight Regulation: Lawmakers look to delay labor board ruling Senate Dems offer bill to restore internet privacy rules MORE (Ore.) denounced the move as an "outrageous breach of Americans' privacy" in a statement on Thursday, while Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulDestructive 'fat cat' tax law a complete flop. It's time to repeal it. Trump must take action in Macedonia to fix damage done by Obama and Clinton We can put America first by preventing public health disasters 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.
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 WydenTrump goes big on tax reform Trump gets tough with Canada Five things to watch for in Trump’s tax plan MORE (D-Ore.) and Mark UdallMark UdallPicking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups Gorsuch's critics, running out of arguments, falsely scream 'sexist' Election autopsy: Latinos favored Clinton more than exit polls showed 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. HolderDNC chairman: Trump’s tax cuts and budget plans are 'morally bankrupt' Holder: Trump's election fraud claims are laying foundation for voter suppression Dem rep: Jim Crow's 'nieces and nephews' are in the White House MORE.
This story was posted at 8:21 a.m. and last updated at 12:19 p.m.