Digging The Depth Of The NSA Phone Data Program The White House and lawmakers are defending a secret program that collects data on phone calls made by ordinary Americans. It was revealed Wednesday that the National Security Agency obtained data on calls from Verizon, including calls made locally, inside the United States and calls between the U.S. and overseas. Officials defend the program as necessary for fighting terrorism. Robert Siegel speaks with NPR's Dina Temple-Raston about the program, its scope and civil liberties implications.

Digging The Depth Of The NSA Phone Data Program

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/189270784/189270759" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans, U.S. customers of Verizon. The Guardian newspaper broke the story last night and published a copy of an order by a special court that allowed the NSA to gather that information. After that surprise comes another today, that this information gathering appears to be a matter of routine.

Lawmakers and Obama administration officials spent the day defending the program, saying it's necessary for fighting terrorism. Among those lawmakers, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who sits on the Senate intelligence committee.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years.

SIEGEL: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following the story and joins us now. And Dina, let's start with the big question today. Not is the NSA gathering phone data on ordinary Americans, but is that gathering routine?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: It appears to be routine. I mean, the program is classified. But in speaking to sources who are familiar with the collection process, we understand that the actual gathering of data into a database is routine. But getting to dig into it to see specific connections between one telephone number and others, investigators have to go back to the court and tell the judge why they need it.

So this court order from a FISA judge allows the NSA to collect this information but not analyze it in any way. Here's how Senator Feinstein explained it.

FEINSTEIN: These records - now I'm not talking about the content now, I'm talking about the records - can only be accessed under heightened standards. The information goes into a database, the metadata, but cannot be accessed without what's called, and I quote, "reasonable, articuable suspicion that the records are relevant and related to terrorist activity."

SIEGEL: So Dina, what exactly is being collected by the NSA?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, as Senator Feinstein mentioned, it's called metadata. Basically, that includes the originating phone number, the other phone number, calling card numbers, the time and duration of a call and the cell phone location. The NSA's collecting reams and reams of this kind of information. The key point, though, is that they aren't collecting content.

They aren't randomly eavesdropping on phone calls or reading emails. Instead, our sources say the NSA is merely housing the data until they need it. And these foreign intelligence surveillance courts are allowing them to do it.

SIEGEL: And how would this kind of data gathering work in an actual case?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, let's take the example of the Boston Marathon case. If they had one of the Tsarnaev brothers phone numbers and it was in the database, they would have to go back to a judge to ask for permission to analyze the data to find out who they might have been calling the day of the attacks. The point that was made to me is that law enforcement didn't want to be constructing a database after something happened. They wanted a database that was already there.

SIEGEL: So what would the NSA, the National Security Agency, do with that information? How would it help the investigation?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the metadata would be a great source of information because it tells the NSA who's communicating, how they're communicating, is it a disposable cell phone, is it an email that they're communicating with. So using the Boston Marathon attack as an example again, if investigators were able to analyze the metadata collected on the suspects' phone, they might be able to know who they called and possibly who else is involved.

The White House said today that it's that kind of information that's very helpful in trying to head off a terrorist attack.

SIEGEL: So Dina, as for privacy, as I understand this, I can assume still that what I say in a phone call is private and that the government would have to go to court to get approval to listen to a call of mine. But as for what numbers I call, how long my phone is connected to any other phone, for that I should have no expectation of privacy. The government routinely gets approval to collect such information.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Expectation of complete privacy, probably not. The government can't go through those records, but legally they can collect them for possible use in the future. And to some people, that would seem like an invasion of privacy.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thanks, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.