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Confirmed: NSA collection of millions of phone records 'renewal of ongoing practice'

Published time: June 06, 2013 15:17
Edited time: June 11, 2013 08:53
Reuters / Jason Lee

Reuters / Jason Lee

The chairwoman of the US Senate Intelligence committee has said that the state has been collecting the telephone records of millions of customers since 2006, and the order is a three-month renewal of a continuing practice.

The collection of records was “on an ongoing daily basis,” beginning on April 25, 2013 and ending July 19, 2013, Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic Senator from California confirmed to reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday. However, the practice may have been habitual for seven years prior to its exposure.

"As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the [foreign intelligence surveillance] court under the business records section of the Patriot Act. Therefore, it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress," she told reporters. 

The evolving breach of confidential information brought the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, to issue an official acknowledgment, though he pointed to key information missing from widening media coverage.  

"The Government is prohibited from indiscriminately sifting through the telephony metadata acquired under the program. All information that is acquired under this program is subject to strict, court-imposed restrictions on review and handling," and data is reviewed after establishing "reasonable suspicion," said Clapper via statement.

"Discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions," added Clapper.


It was further revealed that the NSA's monitoring of Americans includes not just Verizon, but AT&T and Sprint Nextel networks as well -- including emails and Web searches -- according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. The agency is also alleged with cataloging credit-card transactions, according to sources familiar with the agency's program.

Congress members were fully briefed and aware of the US’s intelligence gathering program, which included the collection of telephone records from Verizon, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed to Reuters on Thursday.

The top secret order required Verizon, one of the largest telecom agencies in the US, to provide both the FBI and the NSA information on all telephone calls made through its systems, both domestically and to foreign countries. A copy was obtained by the Guardian and published on Wednesday. 

According to a copy of the order, Verizon is required to disclose the numbers of both parties during a call, as well as location, call duration, and other unique data on an "ongoing, daily basis.” Meaning that, regardless of whether an individual is suspected of or linked to any crime, the data of all Verizon customers is currently being delivered in bulk to the intelligence agency.

Verizon did not confirm the existence of the top secret order. In a memo sent to employees on Thursday, they stated that they were forbidden "from revealing the order's existence."


The court order expressively forbade Verizon from disclosing the existence of any US government request for the company’s customer records, according to the original Guardian exclusive.

As to the authority claimed by the government via this order, that is specifically cited to fall under the “business records” provision of the PATRIOT Act of 2001, which was granted a four-year extension by President Obama in May of 2011.

The practice may also be more widespread among communications data companies than initially believed: CNBC contacted Sprint, a global provider of internet and communications services. The company told CNBC on Thursday that it had no comment on whether it may have received a similar FISA court order.

“If they have them for telecom companies, they probably have similar orders for internet companies,”
Alex Abdo, an attorney with the ACLU's national security project told NBC’s Rachel Maddow.

Former NSA specialists have previously confirmed this to RT.

“The FBI has access to the data collected, which is basically the emails of virtually everybody in the country. All the congressional members are on the surveillance too, no one is excluded. So, yes, this can happen to anyone. If they become a target for whatever reason,” whistleblower and former NSA crypto-mathematician, William Binney, who served in the agency for decades, told RT in a 2012 interview.

Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, who questioned Holder about the program, aired concern on Thursday that that spy agencies might have retrieved the phone records of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court.

“When government bureaucrats are sloppy, they usually are really sloppy,”
Kirk said.

The top secret order had been issued only one week following the tracking down of the suspected Boston Marathon Bombings perpetrators. Case investigators had examined calls made to and from their phones, in addition to one of their laptops.

One official told Reuters that the controversial surveillance order exposed on Wednesday was not necessarily issued in reaction to the April 15 bombing. However, a  further official did mention to the agency that the degree of data collection had been stepped up in the aftermath of Boston.