Writing for Britain's The Guardian newspaper, Glenn Greenwald has disclosed a large-scale, top-secret data demand by the U.S. government: The FBI asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in April to order Verizon to turn over three months of certain call records - including records of purely domestic calls - to the National Security Agency.
As he has done in the past, Greenwald has focused attention on the vast reach of the post-9/11 U.S. security apparatus. You can read his report here, and find a link to the highly classified document he posted. Greenwald has lifted at least a corner of the veil shrouding the U.S. government's focus on phone records as a counterterrorism tool - a focus reported to date back to the 2001 attacks, or perhaps even before .
Presuming the accuracy of the document - and the White House has already defended the intelligence-gathering practice, though without confirming any details - it's worth noting how much Greenwald's report leaves unclear, and also how it fits into what we already know but don't seem willing to face. For instance:
The scope of the particular order.The FISA order Greenwald posted applies to "Verizon Business Network Services Inc., on behalf of MCI Communications Services Inc.. d/b/a Verizon Business Services." That would appear to refer to a business-services portion of Verizon that is separate, for instance, from its large Verizon Wireless segment, a joint venture co-owned with Britain's Vodafone. But that doesn't mean other, undisclosed orders don't apply to the rest of Verizon's call records - or anyone else's.
The time frame of the order. It was signed April 25, 10 days after the Boston Marathon bombings, and expires about three months later. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says it was a renewal of a previous order and reflects an ongoing practice. Again, that's not necessarily limited to a single segment of Verizon or to a single carrier.
The reach of the data demand. The FISA order defines the data demanded as "telephony metadata," and says it "includes comprehensive communications routing information,. including but not limited to session identifying information (e.g., originating and terminating telephone number, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, etc.), trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call. Telephony metadata does not include the substantive content of any communication, as defined by 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2510(8), or the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer." But that doesn't mean the government couldn't, via separate orders, have demanded access to at least some calls' content.
CNET's Declan McCullagh says the issue underlying the Verizon order, which the American Civil Liberties Union called "beyond Orwellian," is the broad scope of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, long criticized as a hastily enacted overreaction to the horror of the 2001 attacks.
There have been plenty of warnings - including from NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, or this one that McCullagh quotes from former Sen. Russ Feingold (D., Wisc.) in a 2010 floor speech before he left the Senate:
The FISA order explicitly bars Verizon and everyone within the order's reach from disclosing its details, which raises the question of whether it will be followed by another aggressive leak investigation.
But even without Greenwald's report, we know enough to at least ask the key question: Is there a limit to the amount of security-state surveillance we want to accept in order to prevent future attacks or catch terror suspects? We're in charge of the rules, and right now there's pretty much no limit at all.