Gavel Grab

Domestic Surveillance Under Secret Court Order is Exposed

The Guardian newspaper triggered immediate controversy when it reported on Wednesday, “The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.”

The report by the United Kingdom-based newspaper about surveillance activities carried out under the Patriot Act in the Obama administration quickly drew comment from top leaders in Washington.

Leading Senate Intelligence Committee members offered a context for the report, according to a New York Times article. They said the three-month order looked like it was a routine reauthorization under a more far-reaching program that lawmakers have been familiar with for quite a while.

“As far as I know, this is exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, adding that it was handled by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “under the business records section of the Patriot Act. Therefore, it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress.”

Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois voiced alarm. “There’s been a concern about this issue for some time,” he said.  “That’s why I think sunsetting many of these laws is appropriate because circumstances change in terms of America’s security. And our information and knowledge change in terms of threats to America.” Durbin and Feinstein are Democrats.

The FISA court is a secret national security court. It issued the order to a Verizon subsidiary. The order involves “metadata,” collections of time and data logs that do not reflect either content or a subscriber’s name.

Under a highly controversial provision of Patriot Act, the U.S. government has actively built “a huge database of calling logs of Americans’ domestic communications” for a period of at least seven years, the Times said. When counterterrorism officials want to scrutinize an individual caller, they request additional court permission.

Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union said, “A pox on all the three houses of government.” He added, “On Congress, for legislating such powers, on the FISA court for being such a paper tiger and rubber stamp, and on the Obama administration for not being true to its values.”

Justice at Stake states on its website, “Since the terrorist attacks of 2001 … the USA PATRIOT Act and other policies have weakened the historic power of courts to protect our rights and check possible government abuses.” A JAS report entitled “Courting Danger,” published in 2006, said an original section of the Patriot Act “turns judges serving on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court into barely more than rubber stamps.” It said a renewed version of the law “took first steps toward restoring the balance.”

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