The Corner

What’s Up with the NSA’s Order?

So the National Security Agency (NSA) got a court order directing Verizon to hand over call data. That would seem to be a huge expansion of the agency’s surveillance program. The two most immediate questions: Is it legal? Is it wise?

Let’s start by defining “it.” The order applies only to “meta-data”: the phone number called, time and duration of the call, and where the phone was located when the call was made. It does not require Verizon to let the NSA listen in or record any call. 

The order pertains only to Verizon, which must provide the meta-data every day. Have similar orders been issued to other carriers like AT&T and Sprint? We don’t know. However, it would seem odd to go after Verizon data alone. After all, we have no reason to believe that Verizon is the preferred carrier for terrorists.

At the very least, however, it appears that the NSA has blanket access to the meta-data of all calls — both foreign and domestic — made by Verizon customers between April 25 and July 19 –the date when the FISA court order expires.

The court order seems to be legal. It seems fully consistent with Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Remember, it doesn’t give the NSA access to the content of the conversations involved — just access to the meta-data. And that data can help “connect the dots” (in this case, phone numbers) in terrorist investigations. 

Yet it is interesting that an administration so eager to separate itself from the policies of its predecessor should have embraced a technique pioneered by its predecessor (collection of meta-data) and taken it to the next level and beyond.

More puzzling is the question of how NSA was authorized to collect information on American citizens standing on American soil. Historically, the NSA has been limited by both law and policy to collecting signals intelligence only on international communications.

Is collecting all this meta-data wise? That seems doubtful, though it’s too early to say for sure.  But what we can say for sure is that this operation merits further investigation and oversight.  That’s the least Congress can do to make sure the liberties of the American people are protected.

— Steven Bucci is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

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