In what President Obama has called "the most transparent administration in history" a secret order from a secret court, authorizing the secret collection of untold millions of Americans' phone records, was defended Thursday by a White House official speaking anonymously. As Kevin O'Brien observed in the Plain Dealer, the Obama administration "is giving transparency a bad alias."
A "senior administration official" defended the National Security Agency's collecting of the telephone records of Verizon's U.S. customers for a three-month period under a "TOP SECRET" order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. News of the order was published Wednesday night by The Guardian of London.
"Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States," the official said, "as it allows counter-terrorism 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 court order, issued April 25, requires Verizon to turn over the records of each day's calls until the order expires on July 19. The information to be turned over to the NSA daily includes the phone numbers of both parties to a call, along with data revealing the time, location, and duration of the calls, and "comprehensive communication routing information." The order applies to calls made in the United States or between the United States and other countries. It does not apply to calls that originate and terminate in foreign countries. The contents of the conversations are not covered, The Guardian said.
"As we have publicly stated before, all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorising intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," the White House official said. "Congress passed that act and is regularly and fully briefed on how it is used, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorises such collection. There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act."
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Photo of U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order to Verizon: AP Images