NSA spying on Verizon calls is nothing new

Pub date June 6, 2013
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionPolitics Blog

So, the federal government is spying on millions of Americans. Still. And this time, there’s a document to prove it.

In a momentous scoop by journalist Glenn Greenwald, the UK Guardian has published a top secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon to turn over all call records to the National Security Agency.

It does not matter if you are suspected of wrongdoing, or what your political beliefs are. It’s now been confirmed that if you are a Verizon subscriber, your “telephony metadata” is being handed over the NSA, “on an ongoing daily basis,” along with the records of millions of other subscribers.

What can this metadata reveal about a telecom subscriber?

“Every call made, the location of the phone, the time of the call, the duration of the call, and other ‘identifying information’ for the phone and call,” according to this cogent explanation provided by Electronic Frontier Foundation attorneys Cindy Cohn and Mark Rumold (in full disclosure, my former coworkers). Take a moment to let that sink in. We’re not just talking about every number dialed, but the geographic location of every phone.

Further raising eyebrows: “There is no indication that this order to Verizon was unique or novel,” Cohn and Rumold note. “It is very likely that business records orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company, meaning that, if you make calls in the United States, the NSA has those records.” (Emphasis mine.)

President Barack Obama has defended the practice, calling it “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.” 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at a news conference in D.C. that the court order in question “is a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice,” according to the Associated Press.

Former Vice President Al Gore tweeted that the domestic surveillance program is “obscenely outrageous.” More than 16,000 people have signed an emergency petition urging Congress to “investigate,” while the American Civil Liberties Union has launched a petition calling on the Obama Administration to stop it already.

Amid the well-founded outrage over a document conclusively revealing a widespread domestic spying program, what’s really fascinating is the ho-hum response of two whistleblowers formerly employed by the NSA, who went on Democracy Now! and basically said, duh, what took the mainstream media so long to notice? 

“Where has the mainstream media been? These are routine orders, nothing new,” Thomas Drake told program host Amy Goodman. “What’s new is we’re seeing an actual order. And people are somehow surprised by it. The fact remains that this program has been in place for quite some time. It was actually started shortly after 9/11. The Patriot Act was the enabling mechanism that allowed the United States government in secret to acquire subscriber records from any company.”

NSA whistleblower William Binney chimed in: “NSA has been doing all this stuff all along, and it’s been all the companies, not just one. And I basically looked at [the top secret order] and said, well, if Verizon got one, so did everybody else, which means that, you know, they’re just continuing the collection of this kind of information on all U.S. citizens. … There’s just—in my estimate, it was—if you collapse it down to all uniques, it’s a little over 280 million U.S. citizens are in there, each in there several hundred to several thousand times.”

The publication of this court order also came less as a revelation, and more of a confirmation of what they’ve been saying all along, for San Francisco-based EFF attorneys, who have been mired in a legal battle against the NSA on warrantless wiretapping for the better part of a decade.

(Things started to get rolling on that front on Jan. 20, 2006, when former AT&T employee Mark Klein waltzed into EFF’s office clutching a manila envelope containing technical corporate documents, “detailing the construction of the NSA’s secret spying room in AT&T’s San Francisco facility” on Folsom Street.)

“This type of untargeted, wholly domestic surveillance is exactly what EFF, and others, have been suing about for years,” Cohn and Rumold remind us.

Legally speaking, much of this debate pertains to Section 215 of the U.S. Patriot Act, which the federal government has relied upon to claim it has legal authority to conduct mass surveillance of communications.

In May of 2011, Sen. Ron Wyden issued a cryptic warning during a debate about the reauthorization of Section 215. “I want to deliver a warning this afternoon,” Wyden said. “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”

Has that day arrived?