Liberals Can't Ignore the Verizon Phone Records Scandal

PHOTO: Britains Guardian newspaper says the National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a secret court order.

Amy Sancetta, File/AP Photo

Today's stunning report that the National Security Agency is collecting the phone records of millions of U.S. Verizon customers is beginning to spark a backlash against the Obama administration from the left.

The Guardian reported that the NSA issued an order that allows it to collect phone records from Verizon customers "indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing." Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) confirmed that the order, which was issued in April, was a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice. The Washington Post reported that practice dates back to 2006.

The order was approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court, and a senior administration official told ABC News that it "does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls" and the information collected does not include customers' names. Instead it "relates exclusively to metadata," including telephone numbers and the length of the call.

But that hasn't been enough to allay the concerns of civil libertarians on the left, who are concerned about the size and scope of the government's record collection practices.

"This type of secret bulk data collection is an outrageous breach of Americans' privacy," Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) said in a statement.

"In digital era, privacy must be a priority," tweeted former vice president Al Gore. "Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"

The reason why many liberals are peeved at Obama's surveillance policies is because, during his 2008 presidential campaign, he railed against similar practices used by President George W. Bush. (Adam Weinstein goes into that here.)

The key distinction between Obama and Bush here is that the Obama administration appears to have used legal means to carry out domestic surveillance. In this instance, the administration sought approval for the phone records order through the FISA court. But civil libertarians on the left say that the FISA court process is broken. Its orders are classified and the Verizon phone records collection casts an extremely wide net.

"This bulk data collection is being done under interpretations of the law that have been kept secret from the public," Sen. Merkley said. "Significant FISA court opinions that determine the scope of our laws should be declassified. Can the FBI or the NSA really claim that they need data scooped up on tens of millions of Americans?"

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) have also pressured the administration for years to be more transparent about their domestic surveillance programs. Expect them to jump into the debate over the Verizon phone record collection.

Also coming back into focus is Obama's flip-flop in 2008 on granting immunity to telecom companies that participated in Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. That triggered a backlash from some of Obama's liberal supporters, but he still went onto win the election. And now, Verizon appears to have been cooperating with the administration on data collection for years.

Liberal objections to Obama's surveillance policies have been muted compared to their objection to Bush's. The question is whether they will grow in the wake of the Verizon report.

The short answer is, probably. But don't expect the outrage over the NSA's phone-record collection to be universal. The government's surveillance programs have ardent supporters in both parties.

"It's called protecting America," Feinstein told reporters. "I understand privacy, Sen. Chambliss understands privacy, we want to protect people's private rights and that is why this is carefully done."

This piece contains reporting from ABC News' Jon Karl and Sunlen Miller.

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