The Guardian has obtained a top-secret ruling by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court ordering Verizon to turn over call records for millions of Americans to the FBI and the National Security Agency for a three-month period ending in mid-July. This revelation, which has sparked outrage and garnered major mainstream media attention, not only adds weight to alarms long raised by legislators and civil liberties advocates, but has also raised ire even in the most stalwart defenders of the Patriot Act—the 2001 law that enables this kind of covert court ruling and mass surveillance. In a March 2012 letter to Attorney General Holder, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) wrote: We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn't know what its government thinks the law says.To be legal, the request would have to seek material pertaining to terrorist or covert intelligence activities. The Guardian explains: “FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.” Verizon, the telecom giant to whom the covert court order applies, services a plurality of U.S. telephone users.Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who introduced the Patriot Act in 2001, released a statement on Thursday in response to The Guardian article expressing dissatisfaction with the Justice Department's application of his legislation. His statement read, in part: The Bureau’s broad application for phone records was made under the so-called business records provision of the [Patriot] Act. I do not believe the broadly drafted FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American. Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, founded 12 years ago to fight the Patriot Act, expressed dismay that the surveillance of millions of Americans had been OK'ed. He told In These Times by phone, “The rule of law requires transparency. And a secret court [such as a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court] is not a court at all. Its decision-making is not judicial or 'jurisprudencial' in any meaningful sense of the word. It is ultimately political.”NSA Director Keith Alexander asserted at an American Enterprise Institute forum in July of 2012, “We don't hold data on U.S. citizens.”Buttar responds, “We don't have sufficient facts in the public domain to assess whether he's telling the truth or not. And this is too important a question to take anyone at their word. Congress needs to do its job and find out the facts. And statements by executive officials are not enough.”
Tyler Bass is a native of Danville, Virginia and a journalist long focused on espionage, cybersecurity and foreign policy. Bass has contributed to Disinformation, Main Justice and The Buffalo Beast. When he’s not working, Bass likes taking in satire, grocery shopping in Columbia Heights, and carrying his son on his shoulders (for as long as that can last). Follow him on Twitter @TylerBass.