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Editorial: Phone monitoring demands explanation

Senate Energy Natural Resources Chairman Sen. RWyden D-Oregspeaks Capitol Hill WashingtThursday June 6 2013 during committee's hearing review programs activities

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 6, 2013, during the committee's hearing to review programs and activities of the Interior Department. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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Updated: July 8, 2013 6:35AM

For the past two years, two U.S. senators have said repeatedly that Americans would be “stunned” to learn just how deeply the U.S. government was reaching into their personal lives in the name of counterterrorism.

They weren’t kidding.

A Wednesday story in the Guardian newspaper laid out exactly what those two senators, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), had been cryptically referring to.

The British newspaper revealed that the National Security Agency used a secret court order to collect the phone records of millions of Americans daily who use the Verizon network. The highly classified order spanned three months of this year and covered phone numbers, duration of calls and caller locations, but not the call contents.

On Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee leaders confirmed that this phone monitoring, authorized by the Patriot Act, has been going on for seven years, a practice lawmakers had been briefed on. Several news organizations reported the surveillance in 2006, under President George W. Bush. This is the first confirmation it had continued under the Obama administration.

Former Vice President Al Gore, in a tweet Thursday, summed up our reaction to this massive invasion of privacy: “Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?”

Anyone who uses Verizon — and most likely other telecommunications companies — has had their phone logs turned over to the government, regardless of whether they are suspected of terrorism or not.

How can this be?

Wyden and Udall say the Obama administration uses “secret legal interpretations” of the Patriot Act to claim these broad surveillance powers. This is how they put it to Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter last year: “There is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.”

The burden is now on the Obama administration, already under scrutiny for using highly questionable tactics to hunt down the sources of leaks at two news organizations, to explain this gap.

It must justify this practice (though we doubt that is possible) or end it.

Adding fuel to the fire, the Washington Post reported Thursday afternoon that the NSA and the FBI are tapping directly into the servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails and documents that enable analysts to track a person over time.

Regarding the Verizon surveillance program, an Obama administration official told reporters Thursday that it is “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats,” allowing counterterrorism experts to learn whom suspected terrorists are speaking with. Several senators also made clear that in-depth scrutiny of particular callers requires permission from the national security court that issued the secret order.

Later in the day, Obama spokesman Josh Ernest explained to reporters that the surveillance is subject to a strict legal review that balances protecting national security and protecting civil liberties, but made clear that the “president welcomes a discussion of the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties.”

It also was revealed Thursday that the Justice Department is leading an effort to declassify parts of the program so information can be released to the public.

That’s the start of an answer, but only a start.

Sen. Wyden, the man who’s been sounding the alarm bell on this program for the last two years, said in a statement that he hoped this disclosure would “force a real debate” about whether the alleged “sweeping, dragnet surveillance” is legal or necessary.

A violated, outraged public deserves nothing less.

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