Scope of phone records seizure causes alarm; data collection goes beyond Verizon

Washington Times –

The Obama administration on Thursday defended its secret seizure of the phone records of millions of U.S. citizens as part of counterterrorism efforts, while privacy advocates blasted the move as illegal and a debate erupted in Congress over the intended scope of a key surveillance law.

In a new development, the National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies in real time, obtaining audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails and other information, various news outlets reported. The program is code-named PRISM.

The revelation that the National Security Agency has been collecting phone records from Verizon Communications of all calls within the U.S. and to sources overseas raised accusations that President Obama is running a police state, in spite of his 2008 campaign promise to expand civil liberties while prosecuting the war on terror differently from his Republican predecessor.

On Thursday, the scope of the records seizure apparently expanded as former government officials familiar with the details of the domestic spying said more phone companies likely are involved and lawmakers said the court order is a routine three-month update of an ongoing program.

But a White House official said such domestic surveillance is a “critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats.”

“It allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States,” said White House deputy press secretary Joshua Earnest.

“The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to call details, such as a telephone number or the length of a telephone call.”

The furor prompted Director of National IntelligenceJames Clapper to issue a rare statement late Thursday night in which he argued that the disclosure “threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.”

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