The White House on Thursday did not confirm a newspaper report that the National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of American customers of Verizon under a secret court order issued in April, but defended the practice.
"On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls," a senior administration official said. "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."
The order, first reported by the Guardian newspaper, requires a Verizon subsidiary to provide the NSA with daily information on calls by its customers in the United States and from foreign locations into the United States.
"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, as 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 official said.
The order was signed by a judge from the secret court that oversees domestic surveillance. The official said those orders are classified.
"All three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," the official said. "Activities authorized under the act are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties."
Advocacy groups, including liberal ones, reacted strongly to the news. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee started a petition demanding Congress investigate.
"This is unacceptable," the group said. "When the executive branch conspires with big corporations to violate the privacy of Americans, it's the job of the legislative branch to investigate."