We're All Under Surveillance Now: Obama's NSA Is Monitoring Verizon Calls

The Obama Administration has continued the Bush Administration domestic spying program of ‘warrantless wiretapping’ of Americans’ phone lines, according to a top-secret federal court order obtained by The Guardian, a British news organization.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is based in Washington, D.C., and operates inside the Justice Department, ordered Verizon to turn over to the National Security Agency daily records of: “all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ created for Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” The order does not include Verizon calls made in foreign countries.

The FISA Court said that metadata includes the phone numbers called, the identifying serial numbers for tracking mobile phones, calling card numbers, time and duration of calls, but “does not include the substantive content of any communication… or the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer.”

The Guardian’s scoop confirms what many privacy rights and civil liberties groups have long suspected, that the Bush Administration’s program of data-mining American phone records for national security purposes has continued under Obama, much like his use and expansion of military drones. The FISA Court order is stamped “top secret” and is not to be declassified until April 12, 2038.

“From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming,” said Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director. “It’s a program in which millions of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents. It’s analogous to the FBI stationing an agent outside every home in the country to track who goes in and who comes out. 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.”

The ‘warrantless wiretapping’ controversy emerged in 2005, after the New York Times withheld publication of a story for a year—at the government’s request—that detailed how the National Security Agency had put data interceptors on key junction points in AT&T’s phone network. At that time, the Bush administration said the electronic surveillance was not designed to listen in on specific calls but trace calling patterns among millions of calls to fight terrorism. However, the program has always operated on the very fringes of U.S. law, with the Bush White House not telling Congress about its scope, and then Congress revising the FISA Court’s guidelines, and then the Justice Department in 2009 saying that it had over-collected data but had ‘corrected’ the problem.

It is not hard to make educated guesses about what is going on, which is that the NSA has maintained and expanded its ability to monitor all electronic communications as the Internet and ‘big data’ have grown exponentially. The agency installed data interceptors at Google’s data warehouses after China hacked into its network in 2009 to look for FBI requests to follow Chinese spies. China’s subsequent hack into RSA in 2011, the company that supposedly hardened the computer networks of American military contractors, led to the Chinese stealing detailed plans of America’s top weapons. With these massive data ‘plays’ as the backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that the NSA would be maintaining and expanding the tactics developed nearly a decade ago against al-Qaeda.

The Obama Justice Department defended allowing domestic law enforcement to track cellphones without a warrant as late as last fall, even though the U.S. Supreme Court found that action was unconstitutional in United States v. Jones ruling in January 2012. It is unclear whether the FISA Court order for Verizon would conflict with that Supreme Court ruling.

The Guardian’s publication of the Court’s secret order for Verizon raises very serious questions about what the US Constitution’s protection against government search and seizure means in the 21st century.   

“Now that this unconstitutional surveillance effort has been revealed, the government should end it and disclose its full scope, and Congress should initiate a full investigation,” ACLU Legislative Counsel Michelle Richardson said. “[The] disclosure also highlights the growing gap between the public’s and the government’s understandings of the many sweeping surveillance authorities enacted by Congress. Since 9/11, the government has increasingly classified and concealed not just facts, but the law itself. Such extreme secrecy is inconsistent with our democratic values of open government and accountability.”

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