There's a lot we don't know about the secret court order giving the federal government access on an "ongoing daily basis" to millions of telephone records, and that's a large part of the problem. But we know enough from a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper, which essentially has been confirmed by officials, to conclude both that current law gives the government too much leeway to monitor the communications of its citizens, and that the Obama administration is exploiting that authority as aggressively as the George W. Bush administration did. The result is a brave new world of pervasive surveillance that Americans should find alarming.
On Wednesday, the Guardian reported that the National Security Agency was collecting "telephony metadata" — information about the sources, destinations and duration of all telephone calls — from Verizon Business Networks Services. The surveillance was authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a tribunal that meets in secret and typically doesn't make its rulings public. The order was issued April 25 and expires July 29.
The fact that the order was issued shortly after the Boston Marathon bombingsled some to speculate that the dragnet was part of the investigation of that terrorist attack. But on Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that as far as she knew "this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years." If the government is engaged in a long-term electronic fishing expedition, it's likely that Verizon isn't the only telecommunications provider turning over data.