NSA Collects Verizon Customers' Records

The National Security Agency is collecting the phone records of millions of Americans for three months. The news was first reported by the Guardian newspaper. The request for the records was placed with a special intelligence court days after the Boston bombings.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers. The agency got permission to do this under a top secret court order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, FISA, the last week in April. A senior administration official has defended the process of using FISA courts for such information-gathering, but does not confirm this particular instance. The story, first reported by The Guardian newspaper, suggests the Obama administration is carrying out a domestic surveillance program, which directs Verizon to hand over electronic data, including all telephone records on an ongoing, daily basis.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been reporting on this story, and is with us now. Dina, what do we know?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, we've been able to confirm with law enforcement sources that the court order that The Guardian obtained is genuine. And basically, what it is is a blanket authorization to pick up telephone and data business records, either in the U.S., between two U.S. numbers, or a U.S. number and a foreign one.

And the order allows the government unlimited authority to obtain data for three months, and it doesn't say why. It doesn't say whether this is a part of an ongoing investigation. But the order is dated April 25th, which was about a week after the shootout between the Boston Marathon suspects and police. So it's possible it's connected to that.

Law enforcement officials we talked to declined to talk about that specifically. But you might recall that they were looking for a cell phone and a laptop in a landfill around the same time, April 25th. So it's conceivable authorities would have wanted information about those numbers as soon as the phone and laptop were discovered.

Our sources wouldn't say unequivocally that this was related to that investigation. But they didn't steer us away from that, either. They said the timing probably isn't coincidental.

WERTHEIMER: So is kind of thing legal, Dina?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's legal. A judge signed off on it. The controversy is whether the interpretation of the statute is now overly broad. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is a U.S. federal court that oversees requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the U.S. After 9/11, the FISA court's purview was broadened.

The Patriot Act included a controversial provision in it that authorized the government to seek a special or secret court order for the production of, in their words, any tangible thing relevant to a foreign intelligence or a terrorism investigation.

People who are on the receiving end of these requests - a telephone company like Verizon, in this case - aren't allowed to tell anyone that they've given the government their customers' records.

What's different about this request is the breadth of it. Usually, FISA court orders name a specific target, not something this broad, where they basically request millions of records.

WERTHEIMER: Has anything like this happened before?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there are some hints that this order isn't new, or isn't unprecedented, but we're not sure. Last year, Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. And they were complaining that that there was what they called a secret interpretation of the Patriot Act that would stun the American people, but they didn't say what that was. They're both on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and they're both Democrats.

It isn't clear if this document is a clue as to what they were talking about. But it certainly suggests that there is this broad interpretation of what the Patriot Act allows.

WERTHEIMER: Now, do we have any idea what the NSA wants to do with these records?

TEMPLE-RASTON: No, we don't know. I mean, our sources told us that they were just gathering information at this point. So again, what they get is what they called transactional data: phone numbers, maybe even cell phone tower locations, that sort of thing. But they aren't getting the content of conversations.

Here's how they might use the data they do have. What we understand is that they want the information so they can move quickly on an ongoing investigation. Again, we don't know what that investigation is. And we don't whether this order was just a routine renewal of something that happened to fall shortly after the Boston Marathon attacks.

Officials won't tell us, because it's very classified. It could be related to the Boston Marathon case, given the timing of the order. But we just don't know.

WERTHEIMER: But to clarify, Dina, they're not eavesdropping on the conversations. There's no text of conversations.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's right. It's just what they call the transactional data.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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