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June 6th, 2013
05:29 PM ET

Reporter: Government engaged in 'unthinkable types of surveillance'

(CNN) - The U.S. government has obtained a top-secret court order that requires Verizon to turn over the telephone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency on an "ongoing daily basis," the Guardian newspaper reported.

The four-page order, which The Guardian published on its website on Wednesday, requires the communications giant to turn over "originating and terminating" telephone numbers as well as the location, time, and duration of the calls - and demands that the order be kept secret.

Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald was the first to report on the broad order.

"What this court order does that makes it so striking, is that it’s not directed at any individuals who they believe, or have suspicion, or are committing crimes, or are part of a terrorist organization. It’s collecting the phone records of every single customer of Verizon business, and finding out every single call that they've made internationally and locally," said Greenwald in an interview with CNN.

"It’s indiscriminate and it’s sweeping. It’s a government program designed to collect information about all Americans, not just people where they believe there’s reason to think they've done anything wrong," said Greenwald.

The court order was issued under the Patriot Act, a law approved in the aftermath of 9/11 that allows the government very broad powers to obtain records of people with a lower level of suspicion and probable cause than traditional standards.

Government officials told CNN the order is just a continuation of what has been going on since the Bush administration.

Even though the specific order Greenwald obtained runs from April 25 through July 19, it is not specific to any particular crime or terrorist investigation, officials told CNN - it is just a wide-spread continuation for this particular telecommunications organization.

"When it was discovered that the Bush administration was collecting millions of telephone records of innocent Americans, it was a massive controversy," said Greenwald. "There was an assumption, at least among a lot of people, that the Obama administration was not continuing these programs."

"This is the first evidence that ... the government is still engaged in what, until 10 years ago, was considered unthinkable types of surveillance – a massive surveillance net over all people," said Greenwald.

"If the government is going to be engaged in these kinds of bulk surveillance programs, where they learn everything [we] do, they monitor us, they store information about us, that it's accessible to anybody, then we as citizens ought to be told what it is the government is doing," said Greenwald.

The court order The Guardian obtained was marked "Top Secret" and closely guarded, said Greenwald.

"It doesn't harm national security for us to know about it. We should have this debate in the open. Let the Obama administration talk about why they’re collecting these records, whether it’s part of a larger program, and then let’s debate whether we as a society want to live with a government that knows everything that we’re doing, regardless of whether we've done anything wrong," said Greenwald.

In a statement to employees, Verizon said it "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 court order does not allow the government to listen in on phone conversations. It does, however, allow the government to collect metadata - which includes not just the duration of a call, but also information that can be used to figure out who is making phone calls.

"Not just every number that we’re calling, and every number who’s calling us, and the duration of the call, but where it is that we’re speaking, where they are speaking, where we move with our cellular devices. Oftentimes the information contained in this metadata enables us to track our movements because we go from cell tower to cell tower," said Greenwald.

Privacy advocates have long said that obtaining metadata is more invasive than listening in on calls because it lets the government create a huge, comprehensive picture of everyone an individual talks to, their network of friends associates, where they go, and where their friends go, said Greenwald.

In response to Greenwald's report, a senior administration official told CNN, “Information of the sort described in The Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known, or suspected, terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities – particularly people located inside the United States."

Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest defended the idea behind it, saying "Information of the sort described in The Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats."

"Any time that you report on anything that the government does in secret, and they get caught doing things that Americans would be stunned to learn they’re doing, it’s almost like you just wind them up and they just yell the word ‘terrorism’ and hope that if they say the word ‘terrorist’ enough times, it’ll scare people into accepting what it is that they have done," said Greenwald.

"If this were really a program directed at terrorists, we would have a much different conversation. But that’s not what this is. This is indiscriminate and aimed at all Americans, not just ones who they call terrorists," said Greenwald.

The Obama administration is not doing this on its own. Congress is briefed and there is a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, court that issues orders.

Greenwald suggests in his article that Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been warning the public about invasive government surveillance. Wyden and Udall wrote a letter to the attorney general in March 2012, specifically referring to documents sent to Congress in relation to the Patriot Act.

"These documents are so highly classified that most members of Congress do not have any staff who are cleared to read them. As a result, we can state with confidence that most of our colleagues in the House and Senate are unfamiliar with these documents, and that many of them would be surprised and angry to learn how the Patriot Act has been interpreted in secret," the senators wrote.

There are likely other members of Congress briefed on these surveillance programs who believe there is insufficient congressional oversight over them.

"You can have this procedure where you tell members of Congress, or a certain number of them, what it is that you’re doing, but when you hamstring them and make it a crime for them to do anything about it, to talk about it in public, to introduce legislation about it - which is what has happened - to show their staff what it is that is being done, you make this oversight, quote unquote," completely impotent," said Greenwald.

"It’s symbolic oversight only and it’s completely meaningless," said Greenwald.

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