The Obama administration defended its collection of the telephone records of millions of Americans as part of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts after the British publication The Guardian Wednesday published a secret court order authorizing collection of the phone records.
"There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling on Air Force One to North Carolina. "That regime has been briefed to and approved by the court. And 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 [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] Court to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and the laws of the United States, and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties."
The program requires Verizon Business Services to give the FBI an "ongoing, daily" download of "all call detail records," including caller and recipient locations, call time and duration, the court order leaked to The Guardian said. It applies to all calls made domestically and between a domestic U.S. location and anywhere else in the world. It does not require Verizon to divulge phone numbers or communication contents.
The information then is provided to the Defense Department's National Security Agency, based at Fort Meade, Md.
The order, as published by The Guardian, is at tinyurl.com/FBI-NSA-Verizon-Spying.
Earnest didn't say whether the order in question was in place for seven years, as members of Congress have said, but he said "authorities that are referenced by this reported order are something that have been in place for a number of years now."
He declined to say whether the order relates to a specific investigation, saying the material was classified.
Asked if President Barack Obama were comfortable with how his administration was interpreting the law, the spokesman referred to the legal oversight and said "this strict regime reflects the president's desire to strike the right balance between protecting our national security and protecting constitutional rights and civil liberties."
"My final point here: The president welcomes a discussion of the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties," Earnest said.
The White House spokesman read a statement saying the published order "does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls," nor does it include communication content or a subscriber's name.
The three-month program expires July 19. It was approved by the surveillance court April 25.
It was unclear whether Verizon was the only landline and cellphone network operator ordered to provide the information, although The Guardian said earlier reporting suggests the NSA collected call records from all major U.S. phone networks.
It also is unclear from the warrant whether the three-month court order is a one-time-only command or the latest in a series of similar orders.