The law has been used to obtain a broad array of information. In March 2011, a senior Justice Department official, Todd Hinnen, testified before Congress that Section 215 “has been used to obtain driver’s license records, hotel records, car rental records, apartment leasing records, credit card records and the like.” He also said Congress has been briefed on the use of the orders for a “highly sensitive intelligence” operation, an apparent reference to the phone records collection.
The court process began in the George W. Bush administration after the 2005 disclosure that the government had been conducting warrantless wiretaps of phone calls and e-mail by Americans. In the Obama administration, the number of requests for business records has soared, although it is not known how many are of the scope Verizon received. The government made six requests in 2007 during the Bush administration; 21 in 2009, Obama’s first year in office; and 212 last year, according to reports to Congress.
Companies are barred from disclosing receipt of the court orders and Verizon declined to comment Thursday.
But Randy Milch, the company’s general counsel, said in an e-mail to employees that he had no comment on the accuracy of the Guardian article. He stressed that the “alleged order” contained language that “compels Verizon to respond” and “forbids Verizon from revealing [its] existence.” In other words, his company was obeying the law.
Analysts noted that companies may challenge the orders. It is impossible to know how many such challenges arise because they generally remain secret.
The order compelling Verizon to provide the records was issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is based in Washington. Its proceedings are s
ecret and its opinions are generally classified.
Wyden and other senators have argued that the secrecy surrounding the proceedings has permitted potential abuse to go unreported and they have demanded the release of redacted versions of court opinions on surveillance requests.
Wyden said that the Obama administration has an obligation to give a “substantive and timely response” to the American people and that he hopes the revelation will force a larger debate about the government’s domestic surveillance authorities.
Marc Zwillinger, a Washington lawyer who represents Internet and wireless companies, said he cannot understand how Section 215 authorizes the government to obtain large amounts of call records on a daily basis. That law, he said, was intended to collect records that existed at the time of the order — historical records. “This seems to be an abuse of the statute,” he said.
Moreover, he said, the Verizon order “is not an order targeted at a single customer, or a group of customers, or even all customers in a geographic region. This order encompasses every single customer to whom Verizon Business Services provides telephone service. That scope is potentially staggering.”
Lawmakers have made efforts over the years to limit the sweep of surveillance. In 2005, a group of Democratic senators, including Barack Obama (D-Ill.), sponsored a measure to limit Section 215 to “specific and articulable facts giving reason to believe that the person to whom the records pertain is . . . an agent of a foreign power.”
It was never adopted. And similar efforts since have failed.
Greg Miller, Rosalind S. Helderman and Julie Tate contributed to this report.