The White House says that gathering telephone records has been a "critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats," responding to a news report that the National Security Agency has been harvesting records from millions of Verizon customers.
The information "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," said a senior administration official.
The Britain-based Guardian newspaper obtained a secret court order requiring Verizon to turn over information on all domestic and international calls. The paper reported that "the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19."
That order likely is but the latest in a continuing string. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and other lawmakers said the program has been going on for years and is regularly renewed.
"It's called protecting America," Feinstein said.
Civil libertarians blasted the program as an abuse of the Constitution.
Former Vice President Al Gore tweeted: "In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"
Aides to President Obama declined to discuss the program in detail, saying FISA court orders are classified.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government-collected information "does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call."
The program also undergoes periodic congressional and judicial reviews to prevent abuse, the official said.
The activities "are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties," the official said.
Verizon is prohibited from publicly disclosing the court order or the FBI's request on behalf of the NSA. "We decline comment," Ed McFadden, a Washington-based Verizon spokesman, told The Guardian.
But the company issued an internal memo to its employees from general counsel Randy Milch, noting that it "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," the memo said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a frequent critic of surveillance program, called the Obama administration to disclose more information about the program: "I think that they have an obligation to respond immediately," said Wyden, a frequent critic of government violations of privacy.
Wyden has long warned that U.S. surveillance activities are more extensive than has been reported. In a Sept. 21, 2011, letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., wrote:
"Americans will eventually and inevitably come to learn about the gap that currently exists between the public's understanding of government surveillance authorities and the official, classified interpretation of these authorities. "
The two senators added: "We believe the best way to avoid a negative public reaction and an erosion in confidence in U.S. intelligence agencies is to initiate an informed public debate about these authorities today."
For his part, Udall said, "This sort of wide-scale surveillance should concern all of us and is the kind of government overreach I've said Americans would find shocking."
The Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement that the FISA court order may be "the broadest surveillance order" ever issued. " It requires no level of suspicion and applies to all Verizon subscribers anywhere in the U.S.," the center said. "It also contains a gag order prohibiting Verizon from disclosing information about the order to anyone other than their counsel."
The center, which has filed a lawsuit against the government over these issues, said "we will continue to challenge the surveillance of Americans."
Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal directive, said the NSA's surveillance effort "could hardly be any more alarming.''
"It is beyond Orwellian,'' Jaffer said, "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."
"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," said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel with the ACLU Washington Legislative Office.
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program, said it appears the FISA court authorized the operation under a section of the USA PATRIOT Act that permits the government to obtain records and other "tangible things" relevant to a terrorism investigation.
Goitein and other critics said that provision should not be used to authorize a "dragnet" approach to records collection, such as with phone records.
"The fact that the FISA Court approved this strained interpretation of the Patriot Act illustrates the shortcomings of secret courts and secret law," she said.
The program also has defenders.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Republican who frequently criticizes Obama's national security policies, told Fox News that he's glad the National Security Agency "is trying to find out what the terrorists are up to overseas and in our country."
Graham said he's a Verizon customer himself, and told the interviewer: "I don't think you're talking to the terrorists. I know you're not. I know I'm not, so we don't have anything to worry about."
In February, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against challenges to an anti-terrorism law that increases the government's ability to intercept international, rather than domestic, communications.
The law, passed in 2008 near the end of the Bush administration, essentially remains beyond normal judicial review as a result of the decision. The court's conservative justices ruled that lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and others lacked standing to challenge it.
Those plaintiffs had contended that even the potential of government snooping - which, they said, would violate the Fourth Amendment - was forcing them to change the way they communicate with clients and sources.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who is scheduled to testify later today before a Senate panel on budget matters, did not address the surveillance effort in written remarks issued in advance of his testimony. But the written testimony did acknowledge the simmering dispute about Justice's tactics in dealing with journalists as part of criminal investigations into leaks of classified information.
"While the Department of Justice must not waiver in its determination to protect our national security, we must be just as vigilant in our defense of the sacred rights and freedoms we are equally obligated to protect, including the freedom of the press,'' Holder said, adding that he had launched a review of existing Justice Department guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters.