Less than a month ago, the big question was how much data the Justice Department had collected from journalists' phone records. Now government watchdogs and critics are wondering: Whose phone records does the administration not have?
Just hours after the Guardian newspaper reported on a secret court order that allows the government access to Verizon company phone records, progressive groups are marshaling an organized response. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) posted an online petition demanding a congressional investigation of the domestic surveillance program operated by the National Security Agency (NSA).
"We launched this petition really in the middle of the night, and overnight we had over 10,000 people sign on," said PCCC campaigner Zaid Jilani. "We're seeing a lot of people across the political spectrum stand up and say this is unacceptable."
PCCC is now reaching out to sympathetic members of Congress. Jilani said the group had already established contact with the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who on Thursday morning denounced the type of domestic surveillance implied by the court order as "an outrageous breach of Americans' privacy."
But if critics of NSA surveillance want public hearings, they'll have to contend with the program's defenders on the Hill. On Thursday, Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., described the program as lawful and necessary. "It's called protecting America," she told reporters.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said a “robust legal regime” monitors the government’s use of Patriot Act powers “to ensure that they comply with the Constitution.” He also said that the powers used by the NSA to bring forth the relevant court order “are something that have been in place for a number of years now.”
Wednesday night, the Guardian published the secret court order it said it obtained. The order requires telecom giant Verizon to turn over all of its domestic customers' phone records to the NSA. Those records would "enable the government to know the identity of every person with whom an individual communicates electronically, how long they spoke, and their location at the time of the communication," the Guardian wrote.
The revelation in the Guardian comes on the heels of additional disclosures that the government is secretly obtaining information long thought to be private. In mid-May, the Justice Department (DOJ) revealed that it had secretly acquired two months' worth of records from Associated Press reporters and offices. Shortly afterward, the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department had named a Fox News reporter as an unindicted co-conspirator under the Espionage Act in 2010, breaking with legal precedent.
Civil liberties groups described the court order for Verizon records as the most significant—and disturbing—government intelligence collection effort.
"Obviously, a scandal like this makes AP and Fox—what happened there—look like child's play," said Jesselyn Radack, the Government Accountability Project’s National Security and Human Rights director. She took it as proof that "the vast national security state put in place after 9/11 has expanded even further than we'd ever thought."
"I think this is certainly the biggest surveillance scandal since the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, and in some respects it's even more troubling than that program," said Alexander Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Security Project. During the former Bush administration, the NSA had conducted a similar, sweeping surveillance program but without court orders. After the program became public, the Bush administration sold it as a "terrorist surveillance program" and the president said Americans had nothing to hide if they weren't speaking to al-Qaeda. The current effort, as exposed by the Guardian, "allows them to obtain all Verizon customers' records," Abdo said.
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) attorney Mark Rumold surmised that the program appears to be little changed since the Bush administration brought its effort in line with the law.
"It looks to be identical," Rumold told msnbc. "It hasn't changed at all." He said the newly uncovered court order was entirely consistent with a 2006 USA Today article which reported the NSA was "secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth."
Nonetheless, said Rumold, the leak of the court order is a "serious disclosure."
"This is the one piece of the puzzle that we lacked, and that was official government confirmation," he said.