WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Thursday defended its collection of a massive amount of telephone records from at least one carrier as part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, re-igniting a debate over privacy even as it called the practice critical to protecting Americans from attacks.
The admission came after Britain's Guardian newspaper published on Wednesday a secret court order related to the records of millions of Verizon Communications customers. The surveillance appears to have involved the phone records of millions of Americans.
Privacy advocates blasted the order as unconstitutional government surveillance and called for a review.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not specifically confirm the report, but noted the published 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.
The order requires the government to turn over to the National Security Agency so-called "metadata" such as a list of numbers that called other U.S. or international numbers as well as other transactional information on the time and location of calls. The NSA is the main U.S. intelligence-gathering agency tasked with monitoring electronic communications.
"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 senior administration official said.
The revelation renewed concerns about the intelligence-gathering effort - criticized by human rights and privacy advocates - launched in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and raised questions about its oversight.
It also drew fresh attention to President Barack Obama's handling of privacy and free speech issues. His administration already is under fire for searching Associated Press journalists' calling records and the emails of a Fox News Channel reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.
Verizon has declined to comment. It remains unclear whether the practice extends to other carriers, though several security experts and at least one U.S. lawmaker said that was likely.
AT&T Inc declined to comment. Representatives for other major carriers, including Sprint Nextel Corp and T-Mobile, could not be immediately reached or had no immediate comment.
The three-month court order, dated April 25, directs Verizon's Business Network Services Inc and Verizon Business Services units to hand over daily electronic data until July 19.
It was issued one week after U.S. law enforcement officials tracked down the two brothers accused of carrying out the deadly Boston Marathon bombing. Investigators in that case had been looking into calls made from their phones and had been searching for one brother's laptop.
Another U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said this particular surveillance order was not necessarily issued in reaction to the April 15 bombing. A third official said some data collection was stepped up in the aftermath of that attack.
The April order expressly compels Verizon to turn over both international calling records and domestic records, and refers to mobile and landline numbers, according to the Guardian's copy, which was labeled "top secret" and issued by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The four-page document does not lay out why the order was given or whether it was linked to any specific investigation.
Thursday's admission highlights U.S. intelligence officials' ongoing and controversial campaign of domestic surveillance launched under President George W. Bush's administration after the 2001 attacks. A 2001 U.S. law known as the Patriot Act allows the FBI to seek an order to obtain "any tangible thing," including business records, to gather intelligence.
'ROBUST LEGAL REGIME'
Although the order revealed on Wednesday does not allow for the government to listen in on customer's conversations, it still raises questions about what authorities hope to learn sorting through millions of transactions.
The senior administration official said that "there is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities" like the one outlined in the order and that "all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection."
Terrorism financing expert Jimmy Gurulé said although the court did not need to find probable cause under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the order goes too far.
"The question is how the phone data of tens of millions of Americans is 'relevant' to a terrorism investigation. This is clearly an overreach by the NSA and an apparent rubber stamp by the FISA court," said Gurulé, a former assistant U.S. attorney general and now a law professor at University of Notre Dame.
Additionally, it is also unclear how aware members of Congress were about the extent of the data collection.
Administration and congressional officials said that members of the House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees had been briefed in detail about collection activities under the law on multiple occasions.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he was not concerned about the monitoring, which he said was more limited in scope, adding that he is also a Verizon customer.
"I don't mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist's phone with somebody in the United States," he told Fox News Channel. "I'm glad the activity is going on, but it is limited to tracking people who are suspected to be terrorists, and who they may be talking to."
Still, some other lawmakers have expressed growing concern with broad intelligence gathering methods for years.
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has been critical of sweeping surveillance, declined to comment on the report but called on the White House "to respond immediately."
The American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups, has called on Congress to investigate the scope of the effort, which it called "alarming" and "unconstitutional."
"It's a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents," Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, said in a statement.
The order can be seen at: r.reuters.com/kap68t
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Alina Selyukh in Washington, Ben Berkowitz and Jim Finkle in Boston and Sinead Carew in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)