WASHINGTON – The federal government has amassed a database for at least seven years containing details on virtually every telephone call made in the United States or between this country and other nations, officials said Thursday, providing the first glimpse of a vast secret domestic surveillance operation.
The data collected includes the phone numbers involved; the time, date and duration of calls; and the route a call takes through telephone networks. Officials emphasized that the effort does not include listening to conversations. The National Security Agency stores the data and can use it to detect patterns of calls that might provide intelligence about terrorist activity, officials said.
In addition, if investigators have “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a phone number is part of a terrorist network, the government can seek a court warrant to search the database for calls connected to that number, according to several senators who have been briefed on the highly classified program.
The database can be used only for counterterrorism investigations, not for routine criminal cases, officials added.
Separately, Britain’s Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post on Thursday revealed the existence of another secret program that allows the government to snoop in the central files of Internet companies.
The program, code-named PRISM, allows the NSA to search files on virtually all major Internet platforms for emails, videos, photographs, audio files and other documents relevant to investigations of terrorism, espionage or nuclear proliferation, the Post said.
The searches are supposed to focus on foreign data but inevitably collect some information about Americans, it said.
U.S. Intelligence Director James Clapper, reacting to the furor over the programs, said that the disclosure of the Internet surveillance program is “reprehensible” and that the document leak that led to details of the phone records program could cause long-lasting and irreversible harm to the nation’s ability to respond to threats.
Clapper told the Associated Press that articles about the programs contained inaccuracies and omitted key information.
He said he is declassifying some details about the authority used for the phone records program because he said Americans must know the program’s limits.
For example, a special court reviews the program every 90 days. Clapper said the court prohibits the government from indiscriminately sifting through phone data and that queries are allowed only when facts support reasonable suspicion.
Civil liberties advocates denounced the telephone intelligence-gathering operation as an unprecedented intrusion into Americans’ personal business. “The program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under constant surveillance of government agents,” Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said.
Some members of Congress, including Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, joined in such protests; others called for hearings.
But senior members of both parties defended the telephone data mining in uncompromising terms, saying congressional committees repeatedly had been briefed on it, that legal safeguards had been put in place in recent years and that the surveillance had helped foil terrorism plots.
“Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “We know that. It’s important.” He said his committee would seek to declassify the details of the incident he cited.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that the country faced continued terrorist threats and that the surveillance was designed “to ferret this out before it happens.”
“It’s called protecting America,” she said.
White House officials emphasized that the telephone data mining had been approved by the special 11-judge court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA,, and had regular oversight by Congress.
The database was first revealed by the Guardian, which published a copy of an order from FISA directing a unit of Verizon to provide information to the NSA on all calls passing through its system for a three-month period ending July 19.
Although the order covered only a single three-month period and one telephone carrier, officials made it clear Thursday that it was part of a continuing program, and they strongly suggested that similar directives covered most, perhaps all, phone carriers.
The Guardian did not say how it obtained the order, which was labeled “Top Secret” and was not to be declassified until 2038. It appeared to be the first order from the secretive court ever published without authorization.
As members of Congress reassured voters that the government’s spying on them had been conducted within strict limits, they provided fresh details of the classified program. Most important, they disclosed that the operation had been going nonstop since 2006, beginning in the George W. Bush administration and continuing unabated under President Obama.
“As far as I know, this is an exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years,” Feinstein told reporters.
“What we’re doing is we’re trying to data-mine,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “What we’re trying to do is look at the database in America of phone numbers and match them up with people we know that are in the terrorist business.”
“We know certain parts of the world are terrorist-rich environments,” he said. “When you get a hit, where you’re finding, ‘Hey this phone number from this part of the tribal regions is calling somebody in South Carolina ,’” then the FBI can seek a warrant to monitor that number. “It’s since Bush we’ve been doing this,” he added. “We’re getting better at it.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said the phone numbers in the database “are basically ferreted out by a computer, but if there’s a number that matches a terrorist number that has been dialed by a U.S. number, or dialed from a terrorist to a U.S. number, then that may be flagged.”
The disclosures could cause new problems for the Obama administration, already under fire for secretly obtaining telephone records and emails of reporters in national security investigations.