The Guardian on Wednesday reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order that was issued in April. A copy of the order obtained by The Guardian shows that Verizon is required on an “ongoing daily basis” to hand over information on all telephone calls in its system to the NSA, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries. The document is hard proof that the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected under the Obama administration indiscriminately and in bulk.
Before the publication of Wednesday’s article, The Guardian approached the NSA, the White House, and the Department of Justice for comment, all of whom declined to raise specific security concerns regarding the publication of the court order.
However, on Thursday, Politico reported in an article that the Obama administration is defending itself by arguing that the policy is a vital tool in monitoring terrorists. Additionally, a senior administration official has stated that the act has the approval of “all three branches of government.” However, the senior official declined to confirm the authenticity of the court order and stated that the “information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counter-terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorist have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.”
Meanwhile, a surveillance expert with the Cato Institute, Julian Sanchez, explained, “We’ve certainly seen the government increasingly strain the bound of ‘relevance’ to collect large numbers of records at once.”
Additionally, Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology has said, “This is an abuse of the Patriot Act on a massive scale. Since the law requires that the telephone records sought be relevant to an investigation, it appears that the FBI and the NSA may have launched the broadest investigation in history because everyone’s telephone calls seem to be relevant to it.”
With this information the question now is, Is it acceptable for the government to be collecting phone records on millions of Americans with no specific investigation? One could reasonably argue that yes, it is okay due to the need to curb terrorism. However, is it right to lump everyday citizens with those who are potential terrorists, as the above senior administration official is quoted as saying? I would say no, it is not right. The official clearly states that such provisions are only used on known or suspected terrorists which should not include the need to get phone records from millions of U.S. citizens.
It is my opinion that the White House’s defense of the activity is wrong. As quoted above by Nojeim, this seems like a terrible abuse of the PATRIOT Act, an act that's already controversial enough among the American people.