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Scope of NSA's phone data snooping is 'breathtaking'

Jaikumar Vijayan | June 7, 2013
Privacy advocates say reports about the operation confirm long-held fears

"This is nothing particularly new," Chambliss told USA Today. "This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) authority and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) said data gathered by the NSA had helped the agency thwart a significant terrorist threat in the past few years, but he declined to provide any specifics on the threat.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post quoted White House spokesman Josh Earnest saying that the order was a critical tool for intelligence agencies fighting terrorism.

Data gathered via such court orders helps U.S. intelligence agents know when terrorists or suspected terrorists are engaged in dangerous activities, Earnest said. The court orders do not allow the government to actually listen in on any calls or collect anything other than metadata, he said.

But for those worried that anti-terror laws could be used for domestic surveillance, the Guardian story was merely confirmation of their worst fears.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who last year warned ominously about the "extraordinary anger" Americans would feel when they learned about the extent of domestic surveillance, today reiterated those concerns.

"I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information," Wyden said in a statement noting that he is barred by Senate rules from commenting on details of the NSA program.

"The administration has an obligation to give a substantive and timely response to the American people and I hope this story will force a real debate about the government's domestic surveillance authorities," Wyden said.

Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the only really surprise is that it took so long to get confirmation of the program. "There's a lot of people who didn't believe that the government would be doing surveillance on millions and millions of American. Now it is harder [for the government] to deny it."

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has been a particular cause of concern for organizations such as EFF, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others. FISA was originally passed in 1978 and gave U.S. intelligence agencies a tool for keeping an eye on foreign nationals, based abroad, looking to harm the United States.

The law was amended in 2008 to give U.S. agencies broader authority to conduct surveillance — including electronic wiretapping — of foreign nationals inside the U.S and overseas who are believed to pose a security risk to the country.

Proponents of the measure have described it as a critical tool in the fight against terrorism, but critics have said it can easily be interpreted in such a way as to authorize domestic surveillance. One particular provision, Section 215, has caused particular concern because it allows agencies like the FBI to collect business records and "tangible things." Under that provision, U.S. intelligence agencies can collect thing like drivers-license records, phone records, credit card records, Internet-browsing records and other records simply by saying the data is relevant to an anti-terror investigation.

It's unclear how the government has been interpreting such provisions, Cohn said. But in the wake of the Guardian disclosure, the government should explain the legal basis for its blanket collection of phone record data, she said.


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