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WASHINGTON — The federal government has amassed a database for at least seven years containing details on virtually every telephone call made within the United States or between this country and telephones abroad, officials said Thursday, providing the first glimpse of a vast secret domestic surveillance operation.
The data collected include the phone numbers involved, the time, date and duration of calls and the route a call takes through telephone networks. Officials emphasized that the effort did not include listening to conversations. The National Security Agency stores the data and can use it to detect patterns of calls that might provide intelligence about terrorist activity, officials said.
In addition, if investigators have "reasonable, articulable suspicion" that a phone number is part of a terrorist network, the government can seek a court warrant to search the database for calls connected to that number, according to several senators who have been briefed on the highly classified program.
The database can only be used for counter-terrorism investigations, not for routine criminal cases, the officials added.
Separately, Britain's Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post revealed Thursday the existence of another secret program that allows the government to snoop in the central files of Internet companies.
The program, code-named PRISM, allows the NSA to search files on virtually all major Internet platforms for emails, videos, photographs, audio files and other documents relevant to investigations of terrorism, espionage or nuclear proliferation, the Post said. The searches are supposed to focus on foreign data, but inevitably collect some information belonging to Americans, it said.
Civil liberties advocates denounced the telephone intelligence-gathering operation as an unprecedented intrusion into Americans' personal business.
"The program could hardly be any more alarming. It's a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under constant surveillance of government agents,"
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
Some members of Congress, including Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado, joined in such protests; others called for hearings.
But senior members of both parties defended the telephone data mining in uncompromising terms, saying that congressional committees repeatedly had been briefed on it, that legal safeguards had been put in place in recent years and that the surveillance had helped foil terrorism plots.
"Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "We know that. It's important." He said his committee would seek to declassify the details of the incident he cited.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the country faced continued terrorist threats, and the surveillance was designed "to ferret this out before it happens."
"It's called protecting America," she said.
White House officials emphasized that the telephone data mining had been approved by the special 11-judge court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, and had regular oversight by Congress.
The database was first revealed by the Guardian newspaper, which published a copy of an order from FISA directing a unit of Verizon to provide information to the NSA on all calls passing through its system for a three-month period ending July 19. Although the order covered only a single three-month period and one telephone carrier, officials made it clear Thursday that it was part of a continuing program, and strongly suggested that similar directives covered most, perhaps all, phone carriers.
The newspaper did not say how it obtained the order, which was labeled "top secret" and was not to be declassified until 2038. It appeared to be the first order from the secretive court ever published without authorization.
As members of Congress reassured voters that the government's spying on them had been conducted within strict limits, they provided fresh details of the classified program. Most important, they disclosed that the operation had been going nonstop since 2006, beginning in the George W. Bush administration and continuing unabated under President Obama.
"As far as I know, this is [an] exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years," Feinstein told reporters.
"What we're doing is we're trying to data mine," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "What we're trying to do is look at the database in America of phone numbers, and match them up with people we know that are in the terrorist business."