Obama administration continues Bush-era surveillance of U.S. citizens under PATRIOT Act

June 6, 2013

By Brandon Reid
Senior Assistant Editor

The Barack Obama administration has continued phone surveillance of U.S. citizens made legal by the USA PATRIOT Act and begun under the George W. Bush administration, The Guardian reported June 6.

According to the report, the White House has justified the continued surveillance of U.S. phone records as “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.”

The Guardian reported: “The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.”

The Guardian noted that the court order “names Verizon Business Services, a division of Verizon Communications. In its first-quarter earnings report, published in April, Verizon Communications listed about 10 million commercial lines out of a total of 121 million customers. The court order does not specify what type of lines are being tracked. It is not clear whether any additional orders exist to cover Verizon’s wireless and residential customers, or those of other phone carriers.

Fisa court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific, named target suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets,” The Guardian continued. “The unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is extremely unusual.

The Verizon order expressly bars the company from disclosing to the public either the existence of the FBI’s request for its customers’ records, or the court order itself. ‘We decline comment,’ said Ed McFadden, a Washington-based Verizon spokesman said on Wednesday,” The Guardian reported.

The Guardian report also added: “Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said the court order has been in place for the past seven years, dating back to the George W. Bush administration. Renewals of the order are apparently sought every three months.

As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years,” Feinstein said. “This renewal is carried out by the [foreign intelligence surveillance] court under the business records section of the PATRIOT Act. Therefore, it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress.”

Referring to the information sought through the court order, Feinstein noted: “This is just meta data. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. … The records can only be accessed under heightened standards.”

Revelations of the Obama administration’s continued surveillance of U.S. citizens drew scrutiny from others inside the political sphere. Former Vice President Al Gore notably said the “secret blanket surveillance” was “obscenely outrageous.” “In [the] digital era, privacy must be a priority,” Gore added.

While running for the U.S. Senate in 2003, then-candidate Obama termed the PATRIOT Act “shoddy and dangerous,” and promised to dump it.

The USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush Oct. 26, 2001. Among other things, the act, a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, significantly weakened restrictions on law enforcement agencies’ gathering of intelligence within the United States.

May 26, 2011, Obama signed the PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act of 2011, a four-year extension of three key provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act — roving wiretaps, searches of business records (the “library records provision”) and conducting surveillance of “lone wolves.”

The revelation of the Obama administration’s secret surveillance of U.S. citizens comes on the heels of a May report that showed the Department of Justice secretly seized records for up to 20 phone lines affiliated with the Associated Press as part of an investigation into an information leak. Later, it was revealed the phone records of Fox News employees had been searched, along with the e-mail account of Fox News reporter James Rosen.

Also in May, the Internal Revenue Service revealed it had targeted certain conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status for closer scrutiny based on their names or political themes. The revelation led to both political and public condemnation of the IRS, and triggered further investigations. The FBI began investigating the IRS’s actions as part of a criminal probe ordered by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Posted June 6, 2013

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