Last Updated:November 28 @ 05:03 pm

Spying on Americans by Obama admin includes Internet


Public disclosure of the federal government's effort to track terrorists through the telephone records of average citizens has reinvigorated a national debate over the balancing act between security and liberty.

A day that began Thursday with an uproar over the government trolling through Americans' phone records ended with new reports about the government traipsing through the Internet. Taken together, they seemed sure to refocus Congress and its constituents on a debate that has waned since Sept. 11, 2001 -- but never ended.

On one side, the White House, bipartisan leaders in Congress and former George W. Bush administration officials defended such snooping and note it's been going on for years. The phone tracking dates back to 2006, when USA TODAY first reported that the National Security Agency was secretly collecting phone call records of tens of millions of Americans.

"It's called protecting America," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

On the other side, civil libertarians, critics of government surveillance and many Democrats in Congress expressed outrage that such sweeping and secretive programs were being used nearly 12 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"It is beyond Orwellian," Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said of the phone surveillance. Added Roger Entner, a telecommunications analyst at Recon Analytics in Boston: "They're saying, 'Give me everything you have for everybody for everywhere.'"

The British newspaper The Guardian jump-started the debate Wednesday night by revealing a secret court order requiring Verizon to turn over information on all domestic and international calls for three months. The data collected by the National Security Agency included information about the phone numbers involved, the length of the calls and other identifying information, but not the content of the conversations.

The Washington Post and The Guardian Thursday added a new twist: that the NSA and FBI have for six years received information from the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and YouTube. That program, code-named PRISM, lets the government track people's movements and contacts through audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs, the Post said.

Late Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper decried the Postand Guardianstories, saying they "they contain numerous inaccuracies" and he emphasized that under the program's restrictions, no U.S. citizens or persons located within the USA could be intentionally targeted.

"The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible," he said "and risks important protections for the security of Americans."

The result was another headache for Obama administration officials, who appear likely to be called before Congress -- a familiar scene in light of ongoing inquiries into the Internal Revenue Service, the Justice Department snooping on reporters, the Benghazi attacks and a Pentagon sex abuse scandal. Those scandals have ensnared the country's top four Cabinet departments: State, Defense, Treasury and Justice.

Even before the day ended Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee convened a classified briefing with national security officials to discuss the phone data mining, attended by 27 senators. "Now we're going to have a real debate," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a frequent critic of domestic surveillance, said after the meeting. But that debate likely will occur behind closed doors because, as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., noted, the program remains classified.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., summed up the conflict between private knowledge and public awareness, adding that he hopes it will prompt "a very important debate about security and freedom."

In that debate, Americans appear to be more concerned these days about their privacy than their security. A Washington Post poll in April, after the Boston Marathon bombings, found 48% of Americans worried that the government would go too far in compromising constitutional rights, while 41% feared it would not go far enough to investigate terrorism. A CNN/Time survey that asked a similar question found a spread of nearly 2-to-1 in favor of protecting civil liberties.


What emerged as the dust settled on The Guardian's first story was the realization that over two U.S. administrations controlled by different political parties, little has changed. When it comes to counter-terrorism, said former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, this is "George Bush's fourth term."

The secret court order was granted on April 25 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a three-month period ending July 19. Data collected by the NSA included information about the phone numbers involved, the length of the calls and other identifying information, but not the content of the conversation.

USA TODAY first reported in 2006 that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by three phone companies. The stories, based on sources with direct knowledge of the program, described the operation as "the largest database ever assembled in the world."

The newspaper reported that the three companies -- Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth -- were working with the NSA. But Verizon and BellSouth denied at the time that they had contracted with the NSA to provide bulk calling records.

White House officials on Thursday were quick to defend the phone call tracking program run by the NSA -- jokingly referred to as "No Such Agency" for its top-secret operations.

Traveling on Air Force One, White House chief deputy press secretary Josh Earnest noted that Congress has signed off on the program, and "a robust legal regime" is in place to make sure it complies with the Constitution. He said the government doesn't listen into the content of any call or the name of any subscriber.

Obama and his aides reject the notion they are following in Bush's footsteps. In a recent speech on counterterrorism, Obama said, "We unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress."

But Juan Carlos Zarate, a counterterrorism official during the Bush administration, said he long predicted "continuity" between the two administrations. "As a matter of necessity, the administration uses any and all tools it can use legally," said Zarate, now a senior adviser with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.


On Capitol Hill, news of the three-month FISA order was greeted with a collective yawn from lawmakers who get regular intelligence briefings -- but surprise from those who do not.

Feinstein said the program has been going on for years and is regularly renewed. "Terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing that we have to deter this is good intelligence," she said.

Her Republican counterpart, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said the program is 7 years old and every member of the Senate knows about it. "To my knowledge, we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information," he said -- though few citizens would have known.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the program helped thwart a "significant domestic terrorist attack" in the United States "within the last few years." He said his panel was working to declassify information on the plot so it could be discussed publicly.

Several leading Republicans strongly defended the Obama administration, even as Democrats more accustomed to being allies decried the program. "I'm a Verizon customer," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "It doesn't bother me one bit that NSA has my number."

But three senior House Judiciary Committee Democrats -- Reps. John Conyers of Michigan, Jerrold Nadler of New York and Robert Scott of Virginia -- described the surveillance effort as "overbroad" and called for an immediate congressional review.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who voted against the Patriot Act when it was first enacted in 2001 and has opposed its reauthorization, said the twin disclosures demonstrate the government has too much power to spy on Americans.

"We've got to revisit the USA Patriot Act," Sanders told USA TODAY. "We've got to work on legislation to restrict those types of activities."

And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called it "an astounding assault on the Constitution."


For its part, Verizon said it could not disclose the court order or the FBI's request on behalf of the NSA. But the company issued an internal memo to its employees from general counsel Randy Milch, noting that it "continually takes steps to safeguard its customers' privacy."

"Nevertheless, the law authorizes the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances, and if Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply," the memo said.

Civil libertarians blasted the program as an abuse of the Constitution.

Former vice president Al Gore tweeted: "In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"

The Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement that the FISA court order may be "the broadest surveillance order" ever issued. "It requires no level of suspicion and applies to all Verizon subscribers, anywhere in the U.S." The center, which has filed a lawsuit against the government over these issues, said "we will continue to challenge the surveillance of Americans."

Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director, said the NSA's surveillance "could hardly be any more alarming." "It provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies," he said.

The huge volume of telephone records turned over to the government could help investigators identify and deter a range of terrorist acts, including cyberattacks, analysts say.

"Once you have this big chunk of data and you have it forever ... you can do all sorts of analytics with it using other data sources," said Joseph DeMarco, former head of the cybercrime unit in the U.S. attorney's office in New York City. "A data set like this is the gift that keeps on giving."

Contributing: Jim Michaels, Richard Wolf in Washington; Roger Yu in McLean, Va.


Molly Riley, AP

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  1. capricorn1Comment by capricorn1
    June 7, 2013 @ 7:02 am

    the reich will know everyhing about you,your family,your god,your friends,your diet,your medical records,your hobbies,and especially your political views.
    seig heil seig heil

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  2. reelmanComment by reelman
    June 7, 2013 @ 8:54 am

    So the arrogant apostles of utopian socialism are also spying on congress and the SCOTUS ?
    Right? That is legal? Well, is it?

    So what is the GOP doing about all this?
    (answer: not much or nothing at all)

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    • tomtComment by tomt
      June 10, 2013 @ 9:31 am

      This display of self confidence, blatently expressed his defiance to the Congress and Country with regards to the current inquiries into Benghazi, IRS, AP and his many more surfacing, dictatorial acts and policies oppressing the American People. This latest, broad scope surveillance is a huge step to stifle his political enemies.

      I am asking the same questions as you Reelman. Are we waiting for him to increase his DHS army to the strength he needs to insure his Dictatorship? We are losing valuable time. No time now for Congress to procrastinate should any charges be forthcoming they need to stop his run-away freight train barreling towards our destruction.

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  3. revamadisonComment by revamadison
    June 7, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    Lets stop the rot of saying The Obama administration is the one who is doing this. It was not them that started it. It goes back many years, way before he was even in the picture, and carried on by both parties. It is a safety factor for the rest of us, and we do not know how many lives it has saved over the years – both Democrat and Republican, and everyone in between. Quit attacking others, when we have been as responsible as everyone else.

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    • freedixieComment by freedixie
      June 7, 2013 @ 10:00 am

      “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

      Benjamin Franklin

      If you want to live in a society whose government spies on everything you do, move to Cuba, China, North Korea, or any other socialist/communist country. This country was not founded on such principles, but on individual liberty. If you really believe this government has saved numerous lives by spying on its citizens, then you have guzzled the Kool-Aid. By the DHS definition, all of us who are patriots are terrorists, so we should have all of our private communications invaded and violated to “make us safe”. Hey revamadison, put the crack pipe down.

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    • bwtankerComment by bwtanker
      June 7, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

      attacking,this is not attacking this is totally above and beyond.i’m not worried about the phone records,i just plain don’t like the idea of someone reading my emails.this is totally out of place.i’m 61 and on disability so maybe you should really think about what they are doing and think for yourself if it sounds legal or not.i don’t care that it started in another administration,obama kept it going and intensified it to snoop around in more stuff that’s none of their f**king business

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  4. whodunitComment by whodunit
    June 7, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    This from the President who has rarely disclosed his own records . . . I guess the old adage “information is power” comes to play here. He’s not giving out his info, so no one has power over him, but he wants info on others, so he’ll have power over them.

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  5. pebearComment by pebear
    June 7, 2013 @ 10:17 am

    I did not like it happening under the Bush administration and I don’t like it now. It only reinforces my belief that we no longer live in a free country.

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    • bwtankerComment by bwtanker
      June 7, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

      glad to see you woke up finally.i have pretty much known this for a while now,and i don’t like it one bit either.i don’t care what administration it is

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  6. Pingback: Obama’s Police State | Jaycee's Commentaries

  7. curmudgeon2Comment by curmudgeon2
    June 7, 2013 @ 10:38 am

    POTUS wants to keep abreast of evidence being gathered against him by Republicans. Monatoring calls and emails amongst Republicans, what better way to avoid capture than knowing in advance what when and how the investigations of his office are progressing.

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  8. davebnmComment by davebnm
    June 7, 2013 @ 10:38 am

    I know that I’m a blip on their radar. When that soldier was killed in the UK by those two lowlifes, I went to Al Jazeera, because at the time they were the only place that had a video. The liberal news was “protecting” us from “offensive” material. I hope Gitmo has an American wing in it?

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  9. awkingsleyComment by awkingsley
    June 7, 2013 @ 11:22 am

    The spying will always be primarily on ordinary citizens instead of criminals or terrorists for the same reason the IRS targeted Conservative political applications for non-profit status. Spying on and destroying the political opposition is the major reason for this freedom destroying boondoggle. Spying is only for the purpose of controlling ordinary citizens, which is why the Tsarnaev brothers were not apprehended, even though the FBI received information from 2 foreign governments that they were suspected terrorists. Our government just wants to use the information from spying for political advantage and to control us. That is a Police State. In a Police State, criminals just bribe the police, and Organized Crime reigns.

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  10. Pingback: Obama’s Police State

  11. wumingrenComment by wumingren
    June 7, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    070613 0012 0325 7823 2607 1104 3305 7132 9899 3420 5609 2941 0322 4876

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    • cxComment by genesal
      June 7, 2013 @ 2:24 pm


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  12. skepticComment by skeptic
    June 7, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    There is no balance.
    Ben Franklin, arguably the wisest true US citizen that ever was said, paraphrased, Anyone willing to sacrifice Liberty for Security will have neither.

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  13. annie12Comment by annie12
    June 7, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

    With hundreds of millions of people posting their inner most secrets on sites like Facebook and their counter parts for all to see freely. Does it matter who trolls covertly for that extra dirt. Privacy vanished with the internet and peoples willingness to post the stories of their lives on it.

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  14. freedomfighterComment by freedomfighter
    June 7, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

    It’s Big Brother at it’s finest. How long will it be before they install camera’s in our homes, just to see if we are making bombs, or loading casings?.
    If a child gets into the candy sitting on the coffee table, and is ignored, the Child will believe it is fine, and continue to do so. However, if the word no is used, with a little slap on the hand, eventually the Child will figure out both the word, and the hand slap as signals not to take candy from the bowl.
    If the Government/NObama is never confronted concerning anything they do, then this gives them a license to fly, and do as they wish, to whom, or which, with no account of their actions.
    Wake up America, we are heading in the direction of a 3rd world Country, and we are hardly even pushing back. We must let Pinocchiomama realize that we are closely observing him, and are going to hold him accountable for his treachery to our Country and it’s People. He needs a little slap on the hand, or a big kick in the butt to let him know we are indeed, pushing back. We as Americans still have rights, at least until they are removed from us, so show your contempt, and sing out against his Tyranny, before it is too late.

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  15. BillzillaComment by Billzilla
    June 7, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

    “Director of National Intelligence James Clapper decried the Post and Guardian stories, saying they “they contain numerous inaccuracies” and he emphasized that under the program’s restrictions, no U.S. citizens or persons located within the USA could be intentionally targeted.”

    And exactly WHO gets to decide if a US citizen was or wasn’t intentionally targeted?

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  16. steven LComment by steven L
    June 8, 2013 @ 12:02 am

    We cannot complain. He clearly stated that he will transform this country. The American people did not ask what he meant. In particular the mass media who claim to be smart! ***** yes.

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  17. bowler1hatComment by bowler1hat
    June 8, 2013 @ 3:34 am

    Obama specifically stuttered that the NSA will NOT be listening as they check phone connections between suspected radical conspirators. We must believe him just as we must believe that an elephant can be suspended between the goalposts of a football field on a net of onion skins. And Obamacare will not bankrupt the nation. And the Obama administration doesn’t thrive and survive on lies!

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  18. steven LComment by steven L
    June 8, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    Tks to PC the US gvt will waste a lot more than by the use of targeted profiling. Wasting is an American super-specialty.

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