Verizon Phone Records Secretly Collected by Feds: Report

White House defends widespread phone record collection.

ByABC News
June 6, 2013, 7:01 AM

June 6, 2013— -- The Obama administration has been quietly collecting millions of telephone records from U.S. Verizon customers under a top-secret court order first obtained in late April, according to British newspaper The Guardian.

A copy of the classified order, posted Wednesday on the newspaper's website, reveals that Verizon has been required to provide to the National Security Agency on an "ongoing, daily basis" information on all phone calls made through its systems.

Under the order, the government has obtained phone numbers of both parties on every Verizon call, the call's duration, location data and the time of day the calls were made. The order does not allow the government to listen in on the calls or obtain details of their contents.

The order was granted April 25 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), which oversees secret government requests for private information that might help identify suspected terrorists or foreign nationals in the U.S. The order, which did not identify intended targets or the rational for casting such a wide net, expires July 19.

READ: Senators Dismiss Verizon Phone Record Dragnet

A former top U.S. intelligence official with decades of direct experience handling FISA surveillance matters told ABC News that the scope of the Verizon order posted online by the Guardian is breathtaking.

"This suggests NSA is collecting broadly," the former intelligence official told ABC News. "Collection does not necessarily mean review, but it still would be a large change even from post-9/11 activity."

Another official, Mark Rossini, a former senior FBI official detailed to CIA, said a program such as this would collect numbers in a massive database that is merged with all the telephone data the NSA vacuums up from around the globe. The NSA then correlates the information to see "any links or patterns of activity" related to subjects of U.S. investigation.

"This pertains to terrorism, spying, industrial espionage, cyber, etc.," said Rossini, who was once a top briefer to former CIA Director George Tenet. "This is all done to keep America safe and economically secure and ahead."

The veracity of the Guardian's document could not be independently confirmed by ABC News. Neither the NSA nor Verizon responded to requests for comment, though neither immediately denied the report.

Randy Milch, Verizon Executive Vice President and General Counsel, addressed The Guardian report in an email to employees, obtained by ABC News.

"We have no comment on the accuracy of The Guardian newspaper story or the documents referenced," he said. "Verizon continually takes steps to safeguard its customers' privacy. Nevertheless, the law authorizes the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances, and if Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply."

A senior Obama administration official also declined to verify the authenticity of the order posted by the Guardian, but defended such data collection as a "critical tool" to protect the country.

"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," the administration official said. "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."

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters the NSA program helped thwart a "significant domestic terrorist attack... within the last few years."

But the revelation also appears to call into question testimony from Director of National Intelligence Gen. James Clapper just three months ago, one month before the order was granted. Then, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Clapper if the NSA collected "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans."

"No sir... Not wittingly," Clapper said. "There are cases where they could inadvertantly, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly."