British newspaper “The Guardian” has reported that the United States has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans under a top secret court order.

British newspaper The Guardian reported that the United States has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans under a top secret court order. The Obama administration on Thursday defended the government’s need to collect telephone records of American citizens, calling such information “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats”.

While defending the practice, a senior Obama administration official did not confirm the report on Wednesday in The Guardian. The administration official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorised to publicly discuss classified matters.

The disclosure was likely to bring questions from both Republicans and Democrats of how far the Obama administration’s surveillance policies go, following controversies over the government’s tracking of Associated Press journalists’ phone records and obtaining a warrant to secretly gather a Fox News reporter’s emails.

The White House has been on the defensive against Republicans who claim the administration is too intrusive in Americans’ lives, citing the federal tax agency’s targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny as proof.

Republicans also claim Obama aides manipulated the government’s response to last year’s deadly attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to remove any links to terrorism in the heat of a presidential election, which the White House denies.

The court order to collect phone records was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25, 2013 and is good until July 19, the newspaper reported. The order requires Verizon, one of America’s largest telecommunications companies, on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the National Security Agency information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

Verizon Communications listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter earnings report this April 98.9 million wireless customers, 11.7 million residential phone lines and about 10 million commercial lines. The court order didn’t specify which type of phone customers’ records were being tracked.

Under the terms of the order, the phone numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as are location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, The Guardian said.

The administration official said, “On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls.”

The broad, unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is unusual. FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets. NSA warrantless wiretapping during the George W. Bush administration after the September 11, 2001, attacks was very controversial.

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