As you've likely seen, The Guardian reported Wednesday night that the National Security Agency got a court order in April to demand the call records of all Verizon Business Network Services. The order doesn't allow the NSA to listen in on the calls, but it covers information on call time, duration, location, and other details. The paper obtained the order itself.
The order appears to go beyond what Congress authorized the Bush administration to do in 2008, when it expanded the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, with support from then Sen. Obama. That expansion didn't cover calls in which both parties were in the U.S. The recent court order does. It calls for the production of "telephony metadata" on communications both "between the United States and abroad" and "wholly within the United States, including local calls."
The order relies on a provision of the Patriot Act that, as The New York Times reports, "made it easier to get an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain business records so long as they were merely deemed 'relevant' to a national-security investigation."
"It lets the government keep a record of anyone you call, anyone who calls you, for how long you talk, potentially from where you’re talking," Alex Abdo, an attorney with the ACLU's national security project, explained to me. "That is a stone’s throw away from an Orwellian state."
Abdo said what's also troubling about the news is that it could represent just "the tip of the iceberg," as he put it:
If they have them for telecom companies, they probably have similar orders for internet companies. It's not a stretch to believe that the government is similarly tracking everyone we email, when we email them, potentially from where we email them, and any other category of internet communication you can think of. So this is what we can see above the water and we don't know what's below it. And the possibilities are very troubling.
It's worth recalling what Obama said while running for president in 2008 -- though he was responding to the news that Bush administration had acted without a court order:
Given the grave threats that we face, our national security agencies must have the capability to gather intelligence and track down terrorists before they strike, while respecting the rule of law and the privacy and civil liberties of the American people. There is also little doubt that the Bush Administration, with the cooperation of major telecommunications companies, has abused that authority and undermined the Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without their knowledge or the required court orders.
We'll no doubt hear plenty more on this, as we should, but MSNBC's Adam Serwer notes something that's perhaps even more troubling: Despite concerns raised by some Democratic lawmakers, the administration isn't exactly going against the will of the Congress on this. He writes:
While the breadth of the NSA’s request could lead to harsh condemnations from legislators, most senators, and the vast majority of Republicans in the chamber, are on record voting to prevent Americans from knowing anything about it. California Senator Dianne Feinstein suggested during the debate that her Senate colleagues trying to amend the FISA law believed that “that this country no longer needs to fear an attack.”