The Obama administration has been secretly carrying out a domestic surveillance programme under which it was collecting business communications records involving US citizens under a much-debated section of the Patriot Act, according to a highly classified court order that was disclosed last night.
Under the order, signed by judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in April, a Verizon Communications subsidiary, Verizon Business Network Services, had been directed to turn over ''on an ongoing daily basis'' to the National Security Agency all call logs ''between the United States and abroad'' or ''wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.''
The content of the communications is not covered by the order.
Verizon Business Network Services is one of the nation's largest telecommunications network, but whether similar orders had gone to other parts of Verizon, like its residential or cellphone services, or to other telecommunications carriers was not clear. Under the order its recipient is prohibited from discussing its existence.
The four-page order was disclosed last evening by The Guardian newspaper. Obama administration officials as also the FBI and the White House declined to comment on it last evening, but did not deny the report, and a person familiar with the order confirmed its authenticity. ''We will respond as soon as we can,'' said Marci Green Miller, a National Security Agency spokeswoman, in an e-mail.
The admission came following The Guardian newspaper publishing a secret court order related to the records of millions of Verizon Communications customers on its web site yesterday.
A Reuters report citing a senior administration official said the court order pertained only to data, including telephone number or the length of a call, and not the identities of subscribers or the content of the telephone calls.
Such information was "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States," the official quoted the Reuters report as saying.
"It allows counter terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," the official added.
The revelation raises fresh concerns about president Barack Obama's handling of issues relating to privacy and free speech. His administration is already under fire for searching Associated Press journalists' calling records and the e-mails of a Fox television reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.