Washington, June 7: The Barack Obama administration has obtained telephone records of millions of Americans in bulk on an "ongoing daily basis" from Verizon, a leading British newspaper reported today, provoking angry reactions from rights groups over FBI's sweeping domestic spying powers.
"The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April," The Guardian reported.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the paper, requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries, the report said.
The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the Obama administration unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19, the report said.
Under the terms of the four-page blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.
Reacting to the report, a senior Obama administration official said that the purported order "does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls" but relates only to "metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call."
The official said such information "has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States," the Washington Post reported.
The official added that "all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorising intelligence collection" under the secret court, and Congress "is regularly and fully briefed" on how the information is used.
If the document published by the Guardian is genuine, it could represent the broadest surveillance order known to have been issued, the Post said.
"It also would confirm long-standing suspicions of civil liberties advocates about the sweeping nature of US surveillance through commercial carriers under laws passed after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it said.
CNN reported that Verizon spokesman Edward McFadden declined to comment on the report.
The FBI did not respond to a CNN request for comment. The NSA told CNN said it will respond "as soon as we can."
The order does not say why the request was made, but it bans the government and Verizon from making the contents public.
"As far as we know, this order from the FISA court is the broadest surveillance order to ever have been issued: it requires no level of suspicion and applies to all Verizon subscribers anywhere in the US," the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement released shortly after the story broke.
"It also contains a gag order prohibiting Verizon from disclosing information about the order to anyone other than their counsel."
Former US Vice President Al Gore also criticised the Obama administration's move.
"In the digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?" he said in a post on Twitter.
The order is allowed under the Patriot Act, and it is not the first time such an action has been taken.
In 2006, it was revealed that the NSA was secretly collecting telephone records as part of an effort to root out potential terror plots.
Reacting to Wednesday's disclosure, the American Civil Liberties Union called for an immediate end to the order and a congressional investigation into the move.
"It's a programme in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents," Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director, said.
"It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies."
The news about the Verizon order comes as the Obama administration is under fire following revelations that the Justice Department seized two months of telephone records of a number of Associated Press reporters and editors, saying the requests were part of an investigation into the leak of classified information.
Justice officials have not specified the leak that triggered the probe, but the AP has said it believes the investigation focuses on its account of a foiled plot to bomb a US airliner in May 2012.