Privacy group calls NSA Verizon surveillance illegal

Electronic Privacy Information Center asks Congress to "immediately hold oversight hearings" to probe whether the Justice Department and a secret court followed federal privacy laws.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read

The Electronic Privacy Information Center Friday asked Congress to begin a series of oversight hearings on whether the National Security Agency's telephone surveillance scheme was legal.

A letter (PDF) from the group says a secret court "went beyond its legal authority when it sanctioned a program of domestic surveillance unrelated to the collection of foreign intelligence."

The disclosure of the court order, which The Guardian newspaper did late Wednesday, has roiled Washington, D.C. officialdom -- but most of the debate has centered on the political fallout, not whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order was legal or not. A series of congressional hearings could shift the debate to whether the Justice Department and the court's judges complied with the law or not.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the intelligence committee, confirmed Thursday the Verizon phone surveillance had been in place for at least six years. A subsequent Wall Street Journal report disclosed that AT&T and Sprint also had their records vacuumed up by the NSA.

FISC Judge Roger Vinson, who normally serves as a federal judge in Florida, signed the order in April. It requires Verizon to hand over to the NSA "on an ongoing daily basis" information about all domestic and overseas calls -- "including local telephone calls" but not the call content.

Vinson's order relies on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, 50 USC 1861, better known as the "business records" portion. That section of the law allows FBI agents to obtain any "tangible thing," including "books, records, papers, documents, and other items," a broad term that includes dumps from private-sector computer databases with limited judicial oversight.