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Sorting out the truth in politics

FBI's 'metadata' collection falls within legal purview

The statement

Currently, the intelligence community "can collect business records on law-abiding Americans who have no connection to terrorism."

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., in a speech rebroadcast June 9 on ABC's This Week

The ruling

Udall cited Section 215 of the Patriot Act as the relevant part of the law. This provision was the one used by the government to obtain a broad sweep of "metadata" — information on phone numbers, call durations and other information short of the actual conversations — from Verizon customers.

Section 215 allows the FBI to require "the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism."

However, the government faces some limits. The FBI must demonstrate to a special court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that it has reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible things being sought are relevant to an investigation involving terrorism. Approval must be renewed every three months. The law also requires steps to limit access to information beyond the scope of the investigation.

After the Guardian published its article on the gathering of millions of phone records from Verizon customers, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, addressed the "business records" provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Clapper said the "program does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's phone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber. The only type of information acquired under the court's order is telephone metadata, such as telephone numbers dialed and length of calls."

Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, acknowledged in a Senate hearing June 12 that the NSA has collected millions of records under Section 215.

In short, the program that obtained the data on Verizon customers was deemed legal by the FISA court, and it produced what the government considered "business records" — specifically, metadata. Information on millions of Americans was accessed, almost all of whom had no connection to terrorism.

So Udall's claim appears accurate. Congress wrote the law and key lawmakers were kept apprised of the program; the FISA court approved it, apparently on multiple occasions. We should note the law is subject to court challenges, but for now, the government's approach appears legal. We rate the statement True.

Jon Greenberg and Louis Jacobson, Times staff writers

Edited for print. Read the full version at


FBI's 'metadata' collection falls within legal purview 06/17/13 [Last modified: Monday, June 17, 2013 9:17pm]
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