WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency appears to be collecting the telephone records of millions of American customers of Verizon, one of the nation's largest phone companies, under a top-secret court order issued in April.
The order appears to require Verizon to provide the NSA with daily information on all telephone calls by its customers within the United States and from foreign locations into the United States.
The order, which was signed by a judge from the secret court that oversees domestic surveillance, was first reported on the website of the Guardian newspaper. The website reproduced a copy of the order, which two former U.S. officials told the Washington Post appears to be authentic.
If the document is accurate, it would represent the broadest surveillance order known to have been issued. It also would confirm long-standing suspicions of civil liberties advocates about the sweeping nature of U.S. surveillance through commercial carriers under laws passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The order falls under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the government to make broad demands on telephone carriers for information about calls. In this case, the order requires Verizon to provide "ongoing, daily" information about "all call detail records . . . created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad; or wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."
The White House and the FBI, which apparently sought the order, refused to comment. A spokesman for Verizon also declined to comment.
But civil liberties groups were quick to criticize the sweeping nature of the order.
"This is a truly stunning revelation," said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "This suggests that the government has been compiling a comprehensive record of Americans' associations and possibly even their whereabouts."
Government officials have defended the broad surveillance powers, saying that the information has been vital in uncovering and disrupting terrorist plots.
The court order, good for three months, requires Verizon to hand over to the NSA, the world's largest spy agency, comprehensive communications routing information, including but not limited to numbers dialed and received, length of call, and customers' name and address or financial information. The order does not tell Verizon to provide any information about the content of the calls.