The Obama administration on Thursday acknowledged that it is collecting a massive amount of telephone records from at least one carrier, reopening the debate over privacy even as it defended the practice as necessary to protect Americans against attack.
The admission comes after the Guardian newspaper published a secret court order related to the records of millions of Verizon Communications customers on its website on Wednesday.
A senior administration official said the court order pertains only to data such as a telephone number or the length of a call, and not the subscribers' identities or the content of the telephone calls.
Such information is "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States," the official said, speaking on the condition of not being named.
"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 official added.
The revelation raises fresh concerns about President Barack Obama's handling of privacy and free speech issues. His administration is already under fire for searching Associated Press journalists' calling records and the emails of a Fox television reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.
A few thoughts:
- I have no doubt that this makes the job of tracking terrorists easier. So would the ability to break down any door anywhere and do random house searches without a warrant. The issue is not effectiveness, but the cost in terms of lost liberty and the potential for abuse. The IRS scandal should remind us how easy it is to use government power to harass political enemies and out-groups
- The FISA court is a bad joke, as it seems willing to issue "all information on all people" warrants. I think there is little doubt that similar data gathering is going on at all the other carriers.
- Luckily, Susan Rice is now the National Security Adviser. I am sure with her proven history of not just being a political puppet but really digging in to challenge White House talking points that she will quickly get to the bottom of this.