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US Defends Secretly Collecting Phone Records

by VOA News June 06, 2013

The U.S. government is defending the practice of collecting massive amounts of information about telephone calls, following a newspaper report the National Security Agency is gathering the records of millions of Americans.

Speaking on condition of not being named, a senior administration official says the practice is a 'critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.'

The official said the practice allows 'counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists' have had contact with people who may be engaged in terrorist activities.

​​British newspaper The Guardian published a secret court order issued in April that approved the NSA record-collecting.

The order appears to require a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Verizon phone company to turn over "on a daily basis" all call logs, from within the United States and to other countries. The order does not appear to require information on the content of calls.

Representatives of Verizon have not commented about the record collecting.

The practice is drawing criticism from public policy and civil liberty groups that have objected to the broad surveillance powers granted under U.S. laws.

Jim Harper, information policy studies director for the Cato Institute, says a broad collection of phone records will fail as a counterterrorism measure.

'This program is part of an overreaction to terrorism,' he said. 'It won't actually, effectively find terrorism, but ultimately we will see uses that are quite detrimental to our fourth amendment rights and our privacy, the privacy of all of us — all law-abiding American citizens.'

Media reports say the court order falls under section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, a controversial U.S. law designed to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools. Section 215 makes it easier for 'business records' to be acquired by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Patriot Act became law soon after the September 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks against the United States, to expand the powers of law enforcement agencies to track terrorism suspects.

In 2011, President Obama signed into law a four-year extension of key provisions of the Patriot Act, including those allowing authorities to use roving wiretaps [electronic eavesdropping], conduct court-ordered searches of business records, and conduct surveillance of foreign nationals who may be acting alone in plotting attacks.

Elizabeth Goitein, a Brennan Center for Justice program co-director, says the government's interpretation of Patriot Act provisions is surprising.

'It is stunning, but I should say that it is not surprising because we have known for years that the government has a secret interpretation of the so-called 'business record provision' of the Patriot Act,' she said. 'We have known this because senators who have access to classified information on the intelligence committees have been saying this.'

In a statement, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said 'the program could hardly be more alarming.' He said 'innocent people' had been put under constant government surveillance.

The Obama administration has been under fire recently after revelations the U.S. Justice Department secretly obtained phone records from the Associated Press news agency in connection with a leak investigation.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore reacted on his Twitter account saying, 'In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous.'

Some experts agree that the initiative goes beyond acceptable limits. Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the CATO Institute in Washington, D.C., says the program 'does not have utility for counter-terrorism,' is 'part of an overreaction to terrorism' and is 'quite detrimental to our 4th Amendment rights and our privacy.'

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