NSA pulls Verizon phone records for millions
Barack Obama’s Orwellian surveillance state – which has already featured abuse of the IRS to suppress his political opponents, confidential tax data on conservatives handed over to left-wing political organizations, and treating reporters like enemy espionage agents – shifts into overdrive with this morning’s blockbuster UK Guardian report that a secret court order was used to obtain the phone records of every Verizon customer in America.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.
Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.
So it’s enough data to track your movements and monitor who you’ve been talking to, but not the full content of your conversations. It will be interesting to see if any of this data is “accidentally” leaked to left-wing groups just in time for the 2014 election, the way confidential IRS data for conservatives found its way into the hands of liberals, or the personal information on farmers collected by the Environmental Protection Agency was handed over to environmentalists.
It’s true that this sort of data mining descends from the Patriot Act and has been practiced during the previous Administration, but never on this scale, and not with respect to domestic communications. There’s no pretense of looking for communications from, or to, particular individuals or groups suspected of threatening activity. This is a fishing expedition in a very deep ocean of domestic communications data. Verizon has about 121 million customers, 99 million of them mobile phones. This is essentially what liberals used to warn, at very high volume, that George Bush might do. In fact, there was a world-class freak-out when the Bush Administration’s intelligence teams were searching specifically for calls made to al-Qaeda operatives overseas. And Bush didn’t have the politicized invasion-of-privacy issues that have become an Obama hallmark.
The Hill quotes a statement from the ACLU – never fans of the Patriot Act – calling this situation “beyond Orwellian”:
“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 ACLU’s deputy legal director, said in a statement. “It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies.”
Michelle Richardson, an ACLU legislative counsel, called the program unconstitutional and urged Congress to launch a full investigation.
A couple of Democrat Senators seem to have known something like this was coming, although their 2011 comments suggest we’re only learning about the most recent in a series of such surveillance actions:
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) raised alarm in 2011 that they were aware that the NSA was using a secret interpretation of the Patriot Act to collect private information of Americans.
But the senators, who sit on the Intelligence Committee, said they were unable to reveal classified information.
“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 said in a 2011 floor speech.
The Verizon court order was scheduled to be declassified in 2038.
So the Obama Administration is super-transparent… provided you’re very patient, in good health, and less than, say, fifty years old.
Wyden and Udall also wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last year, quoted at the Guardian, in which they said “there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows, and what the government secretly claims the law allows.” Of course, there’s also a significant difference between what most Americans think the Attorney General does, and what Eric Holder has been secretly doing.
Update: Unsurprisingly, I see numerous reports that the Justice Department is going to investigate the Guardian to find out where they got the information for their story. I would imagine any Guardian employee who uses a Verizon phone is feeling a bit nervous right about now.
Update: I wonder how the Verizon employees fired for improperly accessing Barack Obama’s phone records in 2008 feel this morning. Jim Treacher: “You don’t spy on Obama. He spies on you. That’s how it works now. He won. Twice. So he gets to do whatever he wants.”
Update: Statement from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who also thoughtfully reminded us via Twitter that today is the 64th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s “1984″:
The National Security Agency’s seizure and surveillance of virtually all of Verizon’s phone customers is an astounding assault on the Constitution. After revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political dissidents and the Department of Justice seized reporters’ phone records, it would appear that this Administration has now sunk to a new low.
When Sen. Mike Lee and I offered an amendment that would attach Fourth Amendment protections to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act last year, it was defeated, and FISA was passed by an overwhelming majority of the Senate. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid remarked that FISA was “necessary to protect us from the evil in this world.”
The Bill of Rights was designed to protect us from evil, too, particularly that which always correlates with concentrated government power, and particularly Executive power. If the President and Congress would obey the Fourth Amendment we all swore to uphold, this new shocking revelation that the government is now spying on citizens’ phone data en masse would never have happened.