Obama administration defends massive phone record collection

Thu Jun 6, 2013 5:48pm EDT
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By Mark Hosenball and John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Thursday defended its collection of the telephone records of millions of Americans as part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, re-igniting a fierce debate over privacy even as it called the program critical to warding off an attack.

The admission came after Britain's Guardian newspaper published on Wednesday a secret court order authorizing the collection of phone records generated by millions of Verizon Communications customers.

Privacy advocates blasted the order as unconstitutional government surveillance and called for a review of the program amid renewed concerns about intelligence-gathering efforts launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The revelation also put a spotlight on the handling of intelligence and privacy issues by President Barack Obama's administration, which already is under fire for searching the telephone records of Associated Press journalists and the emails and phone records of a Fox News Channel reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.

"The United States should not be accumulating phone records on tens of millions of innocent Americans. That is not what democracy is about. That is not what freedom is about," said Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont.

The White House said strict controls were in place to ensure the program did not violate civil liberties, and emphasized that the collection of data did not include listening to the calls.

"The intelligence community is conducting court-authorized intelligence activities pursuant to public statute with the knowledge and oversight of Congress," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said the program did not abuse civil liberties and told reporters it had been used to stop a "significant" terrorist attack within the United States, but did not give details.   Continued...

A photo illustration shows the Verizon wireless logos on a mobile phone screen in Encinitas, California June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake