Leaked top-secret court order shows that NSA engages in bulk, sustained, warrantless surveillance of Americans

In an explosive investigative piece published in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald details a top-secret US court order that gave the NSA the ability to gather call records for every phone call completed on Verizon's network, even calls that originated and terminated in the USA (the NSA is legally prohibited from spying on Americans). This kind of dragnet surveillance has long been rumored; Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall published an open letter to US Attorney General Holden saying that "most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted...the Patriot Act." Here, at last, are the details:

The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compels Verizon to produce to the NSA electronic copies of "all call detail records or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad" or "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls".

The order directs Verizon to "continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this order". It specifies that the records to be produced include "session identifying information", such as "originating and terminating number", the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and "comprehensive communication routing information".

The information is classed as "metadata", or transactional information, rather than communications, and so does not require individual warrants to access. The document also specifies that such "metadata" is not limited to the aforementioned items. A 2005 court ruling judged that cell site location data – the nearest cell tower a phone was connected to – was also transactional data, and so could potentially fall under the scope of the order.

Revealed: NSA collecting phone records of millions of Americans daily

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Cindy Cohn and Mark Rumold point out, this kind of surveillance is at the heart of several of its ongoing cases, and the Obama administration has done everything in its power to stop the American people from finding out how it interprets the Constitution:

This type of untargeted, wholly domestic surveillance is exactly what EFF, and others have been suing about for years. In 2006, USA Today published a story disclosing that the NSA had compiled a massive database of call records from American telecommunications companies. Our case, Jewel v. NSA, challenging the legality of the NSA’s domestic spying program, has been pending since 2008, but it's predecessor, Hepting v. AT&T filed in 2006, alleged the same surveillance. In 2011, on the 10th Anniversary of the Patriot Act, we filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Department of Justice for records about the government’s use of Section 215 – the legal authority the government was relying on to perform this type of untargeted surveillance.

But at each step of the way, the government has tried to hide the truth from the American public: in Jewel, behind the state secrets privilege; in the FOIA case, by claiming the information is classified top secret.


    1.  It is just the beginning of whatever the people will allow. When the people have collectively had enough and demand that these things stop, these things will stop.

      We are being ruled by fear of other. Fear of other is the tool used by governments time immemorial to get their people to comply.  “Keep us safe” is the cry., and basic freedom and liberty the victim.

        1.  I don’t see them taking any form in these here United States. We are nowhere close to the point where people with their head stuck in their smart phones, their browsers, their cable TV shows and every other distraction from abstract ideas like basic liberty are ready to make those demands. But to answer rather than deflect…

          For these demands to be incontrovertibly effective means that they must be demands made by reaching critical mass. And by that I mean people in numbers too large to be put down by the security state.  There’s nothing new about this. It’s the model that we have seen throughout history. We’ve seen it in our own history in the American Revolution, the push for women’s suffrage and the push for civil rights. We saw in in Poland with the Solidarity movement in 1980. We saw it in East Germany in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall after East German troops refused to follow orders to take action against masses of their own people. We’ve seen it in recent years in the Arab Spring.

          So…people in the streets, and people supporting people in the streets.  The OWS movement was for a moment a potential catalyst for this exact kind of change…which is exactly why the security state brought together the forces of the federal, state and local governments allied with corporate power (including corporately owned media outlets) and banks to put it down and destroy the movement before that critical mass could be achieved.

          As I said elsewhere recently:

          Ultimately it is not the protesters, the fringe groups or the terrorists
          that are the greatest threat to democracy and the liberties it is charged to
          protect. As history has shown us repeatedly, the greatest threat is the
          unchecked power of the state over the people, unleashed in  the name of security
          and preservation of the state.


          Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is
          a dangerous servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left
          to irresponsible action.
          – George Washington.

          1. Well, first we have to get rid of commercial, proprietary, easily-manipulated electronic voting machines.

  1. This, via Fallows at the Atlantic, is worth reading: http://joshuafoust.com/nine-dashed-off-points-on-the-nsa-scandal/

    1.  Glancing at the last two entries on there – the justification for the NSA domestic surveillance, the call for Manning to ‘get what he deserves’, and the inane slandering of anyone who thinks differently, I’ve now read all I need to of Fallows.  He should feel right at home in the modern US media; genuflecting before the powerful and the expense of the rest of us seems all the rage nowadays.

      1. What are you reading? The linked article is by Joshua Foust. “Via Fallows” means James Fallows linked to it and that’s how fanciulla found it.

  2. I’m very proud that Wyden is one of our Senators here in Oregon. I hope he keeps pushing.

      1. NSA probably doesn’t operate there either, since they’re all the way over on the East Coast.

  3. There was doubt?
    I mean, they were handed what amount to letters of marque and reprisal. Of course they ran around looting and pillaging.

    1. Points for blaming Bush without actually mentioning his name.

      But Obama was elected to UNDO much of what Bush did.  So, yeah, apparently a lot of people doubted that he would continue–and expand–a great many of the same policies.

      1. Obama can’t change the laws which (apparently) make this legal. that’s the job of the people down the road: Congress.

        Obama could refuse to implement them, and it’s a shame that he didn’t. but, i have a really hard time imagining any President turning down such authority – the penalty for having the next 9/11 on your watch, after you’ve refused to use something which might have caught it (hypothetically) is too great. Presidents are always going to go with “i will do everything i can” rather than “i’ll take my chances and not”.

        1. The executive branch does make dispositive arguments before the courts over the interpretation of the law, in this case a clause of the odious PATRIOT Act, and the Obama administration has apparently been arguing for extremely expansive powers that many of us would not recognize as allowed by the legislation in question. And the courts have apparently, at least in this case, accepted that administration-formulated argument. Yes, Congress can (and should) change the law, but the administration does not have to echo and expand upon all of the tyrannical legal arguments of the Bush administration, as they have been doing in case after case after case since Obama came to office. 

          1.   but the administration does not have to echo and expand upon all of the tyrannical legal arguments of the Bush administration

            they don’t have to, no. but like i said, i have a hard time believing any President will do otherwise.

            really, there should be no doubt that whoever wins in 2016 will do exactly the same, unless Congress changes the law.

          2. there should be no doubt that whoever wins in 2016 will do exactly the same

            Especially if they know people have a hard time believing they’d do anything else. Low expectations work in their favor, after all.

        2. The NSA is under the command of President Obama (it is part of the Department of Defense.)  Obama can’t change the laws, but he directs the policies of the agencies under his command.  He and he alone is responsible for the use of the various powers he has as president.  Not former presidents, and not former congresses. 

          1. right. Obama is bad on civil liberties. i’m not arguing otherwise.

            but you’re dreaming if you think any other President will behave differently in the area.

            Congress (or maybe the courts) will have to act, to get this to stop. because we can’t rely on Presidents to be pure of heart.

        3. Obama could have easily fought for changes to the Patriot Act, which he said he’d do.  Instead, he signed its renewal without any fuss whatsoever.  He could easily write an executive order prohibiting this activity.  You’re right that he won’t and no president will, unless, of course, they find that it will cost them votes, which is unlikely to happen in the current environment of partisan tribalism.

  4. I you want to change this, then get a job in a telephone building and do some sabotage. There is no legal recourse.

    1. There is no legal recourse.

      As cynical as I ever get, I don’t believe this. The problem is that too many powerful people agree with the government so there is inertia, inertia which preserves a status quo. The deck is stacked, but there are fairly simple things that can be used to send a message, like general strikes or calling your representatives. Hey, it doesn’t do nothing.

      1. I agree. I’m constantly impressed with how effective contacting my representative is (genuinely!). I don’t live in the US, and our political system is quite different – but I’m sure it’s much of the same.

        Pretty much everything I’ve contacted my MP about he’s not only agreed with, but made some effort to tackle it – and in all but one case the outcome has been positive. Without people like me contacting our representatives, the outcome likely wouldn’t have been as good.  Unusual considering my current MP used to date a russian spy and is currently accused of sexual assault (although worth noting that the police have dismissed the case, his party has other ideas though) – as it happens he’s the best representation I’ve had. Politics ay?

        38 Degrees are also a fantastic org for getting the government to listen to the people – however I have feeling they’re not an international outfit.

        1. I’d love to have a chat with my Representative, but he’s too busy getting interviewed by Colbert to talk to proles.  Plus, there’s that small army of staffers that answer the phone to make sure only the right people get to talk to him.  Let’s not even begin to talk about the impossibility of speaking directly with a Senator.  You pretty much have to be a large corporation to manage that feat.

          The system is utterly broken over here.  It’s time for a do-over, but how do we, the tired, poor, huddle masses, manage to make that happen?

          1. Sorry to hear that.

            Although I won’t pretend my statement is totally representative of our fine nation. When I lived in London not only was my borough’s MP a useless sack of shit, she (or more accurately, her assistant) also replied to every query with an infuriatingly cookie-cutter response that rarely even acknowledged my perspective on any issue.

            It was a labour borough though, no changing that – so she was an MP with no opposition. I think that makes a HUGE difference to how they fulfil their role.

            I think I’m mostly lucky that in my current area not many people vote, and the ones that do generally care about politics. Otherwise I’d dread to think who my representative would be. Our current MP got 18,921 votes in a 207,100 population city. The BNP and UKIP both got more votes the the Green Party. *chills*

          2. If I were you, I’d be counting my blessings in regards to access to representation.

      2. I was going to say something pithy, but I got to thinking about my representative. He’s the guy who replaced the nice lady who was shot in the head a couple years ago.

      3.  I have tried contacting my state legislatures…  They blindly follow the party line anyways and ignore the people.  I have found it useless to contact them -.  Contact their opponent before the next election and work your a$$ off to get them in office.

        1. Yep. Call them, and if that’s unsatisfactory vote for someone else. Anti-incumbency is a heck of a weapon.

  5. They have to do us to protect your freedoms, that they are systematically stripping away.  Are we close enough to not having any left that people give a shit?

    1. I think that one of the problems America has is that the people (en masse) have been convinced that their country is the bastion of Freedom. Over here in Europe it’s really not much better, BUT we don’t have the same propaganda/history holding us back from seeing the truth – so ask an average Brit how ‘free’ they are and they’d probably under-appreciate their freedom, if anything; in the US I imagine it being the opposite. 

      1.  I think the poroblem America has is that the people (en masse) support things like this.

        1. I partially agree with you, but the real question is, why do they agree with it? The climate of fear wasn’t created by the people. This isn’t a localised issue, every country has those policies that are justified by public support, even though the public support was created by the government. Bit of a chicken and egg I guess!

      2. ^ This

        Every time the issue of civil rights and liberties comes up there are scores of self-righteous USians berating us in western Europe about their superior Freedoms. But the numbers are getting smaller – probably ’cause there are no freedoms left in the US but guns and freedom of speech.

        Surveillance, secret courts, torture, extrajudicial killings, detention without trial (NDAA), threatened journalists – all of this is seemingly irrelevant for large portions of the US public. I think there is a certain attitude of “We can’t do no wrong. It’s not so bad – we’re  the craddle of freedom after all!”.

        But when they want to take away their guns or limit freedom of expression there is an outrage. Remember the USian outrage when the french government influenced twitter to remove anti-semitic hate speech? France was compared to a fascist regime … oh the irony

        What most USians seem to miss is that there is something like a “slippery slope” and when the issue at hand (NSA surveillance) is concerned that there is a connection between surveillance of communication and free speech (see recent BB article).

        1. Basically they have hate speech and guns. Arguably two things that actually restrict more freedom than they support. Never thought of it that way before.

        2. Every time the issue of civil rights and liberties comes up there are scores of self-righteous USians berating us in western Europe about their superior Freedoms.

          “Scores” is probably about right. I can assure you that virtually nobody in the US gives a shit about what anyone in Europe does. You should stop hanging out in expat bars.

      3.  They used to motivate us in the US military by reminding us how great it was to be serving the free-est and most awesome country on earth. Funny thing is, they never once talked about improving the US or making it *more* free. They also never explained how exactly they arrived at the conclusion that US was #1 in all regards.

    2. The model popular society would be the muddy mob from The Life of Brian.  No idea of freedom, no precursors to considering it, simple minds inhabiting bodies eternally turning the cogs of power.

      Yes, we’re getting close.

  6. This is news? I thought that this was the NSA’s job; along with spying on the rest of the world.

    1. Who will replace him as President?  The only way to get into the White House is to play nice with the real power-brokers in Washington.  Obama is just the latest patsy.

    2.  Against Vinson, Holder, Obama or all of the above? This is so obviously unconstitutional and illegal under the NSA’s charter that any of the three would be justified.

    3. If they won’t impeach him for violating the War Powers Act, I doubt this will motivate them.  Now, if he perjured himself over a blowjob, that would be another story.

  7. OK, this is bad, but we knew it was happening.  Didn’t the EFF get forced out of a suit recently because they couldn’t prove they were being tracked, and therefore lost standing?  This will make that suit viable again, right?

  8. yeah, no shit. we’ve kind of been living in a techno-dystopia for awhile now. things will only grow worse. can’t do shit about it.

  9. Wonder how long it is before Anonymous does a “dox” job on the judge.  Though I suspect that the judge wouldn’t get the point, and would simply see it as something totally different, rather than looking at it as an overreaching invasion of privacy.

    1. Or see it as justification for even more restrictive laws.

      Kinda like protesters being beaten to a pulp when marching against human rights abuses.

      You can smell the irony, but they can’t.

  10. NPR’s reporting that this authorization was separate from what the House approved in ’11. They’re speculating with a smidge of evidence (*speculating*) that this is a three-month authorization related to intelligence-gathering around the Boston Marathon bombing.

    No excuse though.

    1. E.g., via the Foust link above:

      “6. Judging by the order (and not the media coverage about the order), it seems to have an end date of July 19, sucking up data for the three months before. That would make its effective start date April 19, which is the day Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested in Boston. Not saying there’s a link, but the timing might turn out not to be coincidental.”

    2. NPR’s speculation appears to be without any reasonable foundation. From today’s WaPo:

      … the order appears to be a routine renewal of a similar order first issued by the same court in 2006. The expert, who spoke on the condition
      of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said that the order is reissued routinely every 90 days and that it is not related to any particular investigation by the FBI or any other agency.

      If the WaPo reportage is right, the proximity to the Boston attacks is mere coincidence. It was just time for the order to be renewed, unquestioningly and as a matter of course, and it was.

      1. Which means we need to watch for major-news-outlet-coverage of any “terrorist activities” for two days before July 19th.

      2. NPR’s speculation appears to be without any reasonable foundation. 

        When it comes to classified information, that’s par for the course. Notice that the Post relied on another leak of classified material. Nothing can be proven, nothing can be reasonably discussed.

  11.  The house voted to renew the legality of the process of issuing FISA court orders. But Vinson clearly overstepped the constitutional boundaries of reasonable search as well as the legal boundaries of the NSAs scope of activity.

  12. Why does this surprise anyone?

    1) It’s exactly the kind of bulk data gathering/analysis the NSA was known to be developing. (I *hope* that they’re actually getting something useful out of the data, if they’re going to do the privacy invasion anyway…)

    2) It’s exactly the kind of privacy invasion the misnamed “Patriot” Act and the department of Homeland Security Theater encourage.

    “Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all–
    the policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to
    preserve disorder.” Daley was wrong about the police, but he’s right about Homeland Insecurity.

    1. “Why does this surprise anyone?” is my least favorite rhetorical question. It presumes surprise for which there is no evidence. Then it goes on to imply that this hypothetical presumably surprised person would not be surprised (as they obviously are) if only they paid attention to evidence right in front of their faces, as more enlightened people who care about the world (such as the commentor) do.

      1. It’s also an irritating position because it usually ignores the actual intent of the argument in question.  To wit, not surprise but displeasure.

        Another version is, “What did you expect?”  As in, 

        “I left my bike on the porch and some a**hole stole it.”  

        “What did you expect?”

    2. I have a relative, now distant, who is highly educated, is a professor at an East Coast tech school, and was instrumental in developing N4tur4l Sp33ch AlGoreithms (sorry I can be a bit paranoid) that can scan said purloined records for key bits. I am more distressed to share that he is a NeoCon Evangelical  who truly believes that Gays, Muslims and Atheists are the biggest threat to our soveriegnity, and that Gay Marriage will lead to pedophilia and bestiality. I still can’t believe it

  13. In the UK, this is exactly what RIPA collects. Except rather than being about phone calls, it covers phone calls, text messages and email. For email, meta-data includes sending address, recipients, time/date, IP address and subject line. The only bit that needs a warrant is the actual body of the message. Any communications service provider over a certain size (from memory, 100k users) is legally obliged to provide the UK government on-demand access. For some types of comms data, the level of authorisation is as low as Inspector in the Police. For US corporations with UK subscribers, requests for data have to go via the FBI, but as the UK market is pretty big, cooperation tends to be the order of the day.

    Not content with these sweeping powers, the police and security services want more, and keep pushing the Interception Modernisation Programme. That would bring non-standard messaging systems into play like Facebook and Twitter.

    This shining success in Airstrip One is what the security machine in the US wants to emulate – and no doubt exceed.

  14. For whatever it’s worth, Verizon Business != Verizon (or Verizon Wireless for that matter). Unless someone wanted to really overspend on setting up a home office, VZ Business doesn’t involve home phones.  (It does make me wonder if the real purpose is to enforce commercial sanctions against DPRK or Iran, though.)

    Which is not to say that they should be doing this, nor that those VZ entities aren’t already covered by some other order (they’ve gone down that road before, 7 or 8
    years ago).

    (Will also opine that VZ Business is a nice employer to have in the rear-view mirror but that’s neither here nor there.)

    1. Likely every branch of the Verizon family, and AT&T, and everyone else has a similar order on file.  This is just the one that was leaked.

      1. I agree, just that (having been inside the company) its seems at least a bit inaccurate when a news article has a photo of a Verizon Wireless store when Verizon Business is the subject of the court order (knowing that the former will certainly resonate more with readers).  They could just as well put a picture of a T-Mobile store accompanying the article about “Verizon.” The “millions of Americans” part makes less sense when, technically, they are only talking about VZ Business. Again, the whole company (landlines, wireless etc.) is probably doing it, but given what’s specified in the leak, I think Greenwald is extrapolating the rest and I don’t think he helps his case by doing so.

        I thought it was weird they even went after VZ Business, but whoever they’re looking for may have figured it was a bad idea to do whatever he/she was doing on their home internet, and went to some cafe to use their wi-fi (and that internet connection is the sort of thing that VZ Business does).

        1. The data they request is mobile subscriber data, including the IMSI of the phone being used to make the call and the tower (approximate location). They’re not using this letter to monitor VZ Business internet connections, they’re pulling mobile call records.

  15. You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine group of assholes
    that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it we voted some other paranoid assholes into office. I They
    designed the machine system to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything.

  16. One of the ironies in all this is that finding out someone else’s telephone records was said to be the original purpose of the Watergate burglaries. 
    From Wikipedia: The director of Committee to Re-elect Nixon, Jeb Magruder “wanted to be able to monitor his [DNC Chair Larry O’Brien’s] telephone conversations.”I suppose that may have become a lot easier these days.  

Comments are closed.