WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) on Thursday suggested that President Barack Obama’s interpretation of the Patriot Act allowed the massive phone tracking operation on millions of Verizon customers and said the overreach would shock most Americans.
Udall serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, of which several members were briefed on the controversial program before a British newspaper on Thursday revealed the mammoth phone snooping operation.
The Wall Street Journal has also reported late Thursday that the Obama administration is collecting phone data from AT&T and Sprint Nextel, as well as purchase information from credit-card providers.
Udall’s office did not return a phone call from The Observer asking if he was one of those panel members briefed on the program, and a statement issued by his office also failed to answer that question.
But in his statement Udall appears to blame the president for abusing his powers to conduct the top-secret program.
“As a member of this committee, I have long been concerned that there are secret interpretations of the law that the American people deserve to know about,” Udall said.
“The American people need to know how the president interprets his authorities under the PATRIOT Act, and I expect the president to uphold his commitment to transparency in the State of the Union address and his recent national-security speech,” Udall said.
“Once the American people understand how this law has been interpreted, I am certain they will join me in pushing to immediately change it,” Udall said. “The government’s collection of millions of Americans’ phone records is the type of surveillance I have long said would shock the public if they knew about it.”
The Guardian reported that Verizon is under a court order to give the National Security Agency (NSA) telephone records belonging to millions of customers on a daily basis revealing call times, numbers and locations both inside and outside the U.S.
The Guardian reported documents are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether it includes people suspected of any wrongdoing. The story is based on a court order obtained by the paper labeled “top secret.”
The latest scandal to grip Washington angered several House Republicans, including Colorado’s Scott Tipton, who issued a joint letter with numerous colleagues to the NSA and FBI demanding details on the operation.
“While we must ensure that our nation is secure from terrorist threats and has the tools needed to stop such threats, gathering millions of phone records of American citizens not under investigation for any crime is an overreach of power, violation of rights and infringement of privacy,” Tipton said. “This is unacceptable and we deserve answers from the administration.”
The letter signed by 20 representatives wants to know how many telecommunication companies were ordered to provide the information on its customers and how long the information is stored.
“As representatives of Americans possibly targeted by your agencies’ surveillance, we require more details from you concerning the FBI and NSA’s data collection activities,” the letter said.
The Verizon revelation comes on the heels of multiple scandals that have spilled out of the Obama administration, including the Justice Department’s seizure of phone and email records from journalists accused of reporting classified information, and accusations the IRS has targeted conservative groups for harassment that included demands for private information.
The Verizon disclosure also contradicts Obama’s campaign pledge to the Des Moines Register in 2007 not to spy on innocent Americans.
“When I am president, there will be no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens,” Obama told the newspaper. “No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war.”
The Washington Post revealed another massive snoop program amassed through a tap on the central servers of nine major Internet companies to snatch videos, audio, photos, email and other documents to track a person’s movements and contacts.
Code-named PRISM, the classified program is said to be the most prolific contributor to the president’s daily briefing and accounts for 1 in 7 intelligence reports.
Obama administration officials declined to comment on the program, the Post reported.