WASHINGTON (AP) — The government knows who you're calling.
Every day. Every call.
Here are some things you need to know about the secret program and how it works:
Q: What happened and why is it a big deal?
A: The Guardian newspaper published a highly classified April U.S. court order that allows the government access to all of Verizon's phone records on a daily basis, for both domestic and international calls. That doesn't mean the government is listening in, and the National Security Agency did not receive the names and addresses of customers. But it did receive all phone numbers with outgoing or incoming calls, as well as the unique electronic numbers that identify cellphones. That means the government knows which phones are being used, even if customers change their numbers.
This is the first tangible evidence of the scope of a domestic surveillance program that has existed for years but has been discussed only in generalities. It proves that, in the name of national security, the government sweeps up the call records of Americans who have no known ties to terrorists or criminals.
Q: How is this different from the NSA wiretapping that was going on under President George W. Bush?
A: In 2005, The New York Times revealed Bush had signed a secret order allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans without court approval, a seismic shift in policy for an agency that had previously been prohibited from spying domestically. The exact scope of that program has never been known, but it allowed the NSA to monitor phone calls and emails. After it became public, the Bush administration dubbed it the Terrorist Surveillance Program and said it was a critical tool in protecting the United States from attack.
“The NSA program is narrowly focused, aimed only at international calls and targeted at al-Qaida and related groups,” the Justice Department said at the time.
But while wiretapping got all the attention, the government was also collecting call logs from American phone companies as part of that program, a U.S. official said Thursday. After the wiretapping controversy, the surveillance continued, albeit with court approval. That’s what we’re seeing in the newly released court document: a judge’s authorization for something that began years ago with no court oversight.
Q: Why does the government even want my phone records?
A: They’re not interested in your records, in all likelihood, but your calls make up the background noise of the global phone system.
Look at your monthly phone bill and you’ll see patterns: calls home as you leave work, food delivery orders on Friday nights, that once-a-week call to mom and dad.
It’s like that, except on a monumentally bigger scale. Armed with the nation’s phone records, the NSA’s computers can identify what normal call behavior looks like. Abnormal call behavior begins to stand out.
When the computers spot something out of the ordinary, the government can identify what are known in intelligence circles as “communities of interest” — the networks of people who are in contact with targets or suspicious phone numbers.
Over time, the records also become a valuable archive. When officials discover a new phone number linked to a suspected terrorist, they can consult the records to see who called that number in the preceding months or years.
Once the government has narrowed its focus on phone numbers it believes are tied to terrorism or foreign governments, it can go back to the court with a wiretap request. That allows the government to monitor the calls in real time, record them and store them indefinitely.
Q: So a judge approved this. Does that mean someone had to show probable cause that a crime was being committed?
A: No. The seizure was authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates under very different rules from a typical court. Probable cause is not required.
Q: If not probable cause, what standard did the government use in this case?
A: The judge relied on one of the most controversial aspects of the Patriot Act: Section 215, which became known colloquially as the “library records provision” because it allowed the government to seize a wide range of documents, including library records. Under that provision, the government must show there are “reasonable grounds to believe” the records are relevant to an investigation intended to “protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”
Q: Why don’t members of Congress seem that upset about all this?
A: Many members of Congress have known this was going on for years. While Americans might be surprised to see, in writing, an authorization to sweep up their phone records, that’s old news to many in Congress.
Q: What does the Obama administration have to say about this?
A: So far, very little. Despite campaigning against Bush’s counterterrorism efforts, President Barack Obama has continued many of the most controversial ones including, it is now clear, widespread monitoring of American phone records.
The NSA is particularly reluctant to discuss its programs. Even as it has secretly collected millions of phone records, it has tried to cultivate an image that it was not in the domestic surveillance business.