The Obama administration on Thursday (June 6) acknowledged that it is collecting a massive amount of telephone records from at least one carrier, reopening the debate over privacy even as it defended the practice as necessary to protect Americans against attack.
The admission comes after the Guardian newspaper published a secret court order related to the records of millions of Verizon Communications customers on its website on Wednesday.
A senior administration official did not specifically confirm the report, but noted the published court order pertains only to data such as a telephone number or the length of a call, and not the subscribers' identities or the content of the telephone calls.
The order requires the government to turn over so-called "metadata" such as a list of numbers that called other U.S. or international numbers as well as other transactional information on the time and location of calls.
Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday that members of Congress were fully briefed on the intelligence-gathering program that included the daily collection of telephone records from Verizon Communications.
Earlier in the day, the Obama administration defended its collection of a massive amount of telephone records as part of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts to protect Americans from attacks.
The revelation raises fresh concerns about President Barack Obama's handling of privacy and free speech issues. His administration is already under fire for searching Associated Press journalists' calling records and the E-mails of a Fox television reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.
Verizon has declined to comment. It remains unclear whether the practice extends to other carriers.
The court order was issued one week after U.S. law enforcement officials tracked down the two brothers suspected of carrying out the deadly Boston Marathon bombing. Investigators in that case had been looking into calls made from their phones and had been searching for one brother's laptop.
Thursday's admission highlights U.S. intelligence officials' ongoing and controversial campaign of domestic surveillance launched under President George W. Bush's administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack.
Presented by Adam Justice