US was 'protecting America' in collecting phone data

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US was 'protecting America' in collecting phone data

'We'd be crazy not to'.

The Obama administration has defended its collection of the telephone records of millions of Americans as part of US counterterrorism efforts, calling the program critical to warding off an attack.

The admission came after Britain's Guardian newspaper published a secret court order authorising the collection of phone records generated by millions of Verizon 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 White House said strict controls were in place to ensure the program did not violate civil liberties, and emphasised that the collection of data did not include listening to the calls.

"The intelligence community is conducting court-authorised 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.

"It's called protecting America," added Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Leading members of Congress said the program had been going on for seven years. The White House and US Attorney General Eric Holder said lawmakers were fully briefed.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the published court order pertained only to data such as a telephone number or the length of a call, not the subscribers' identities or listening to the actual calls.

The order requires Verizon to turn over to the National Security Agency "metadata" such as a list of numbers that called other US or international numbers as well as other information on the time and location of calls. The NSA is the main US intelligence-gathering agency tasked with monitoring electronic communications.

"Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as 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," the senior administration official said.

Verizon has declined to comment. It remains unclear whether the practice extends to other carriers, although several security experts and a US official said that was likely.

The three-month court order, dated April 25, directs Verizon's Business Network Services and Verizon Business Services units to hand over daily electronic data until July 19.

Administration and congressional officials said members of the House and Senate intelligence committees had been briefed in detail about collection activities on multiple occasions. One official said the intelligence panels also provided information on the program to any other lawmaker who sought it.

"If we didn't do it, we'd be crazy," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said of data collection.

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