Earlier The Guardian broke the startling news that the National Security Administration has been secretly collecting phone records for every call on the Verizon network. With tens of millions of people's data at stake, this is the broadest surveillance initiative ever brought to light.

Initially, none of the government officials had any comment on this, but now the White House has addressed the matter, stating that it's "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." Plus, says a spokesman, such orders "have been in place for a number of years now." Indeed, the Patriot Act (50 USC section 1861) bestows this authority, and the measures — typically enacted in three month terms over the past seven years — have thwarted at least one major terrorism plot recently, says the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich). 

"Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States. We know that. It's important. It fills in a little seam that we have. And it's used to make sure that there is not an international nexis to any terrorism event if there may be one ongoing. So in that regard, it is a very valuable thing."

As it stands, the act empowers the NSA to compel Verizon to hand over call data for customers. This is something many citizens may understand when investigations lead to certain specific individuals or groups of suspects. But the agency's tactics aren't finely honed in this case. Instead, it's casting a wide net covering every Verizon customer, as well as anyone they contact. It knows what numbers are calling, the numbers they communicate with, how often and how long the conversations are, and where those calls are placed or received anywhere in the world. It's important to distinguish that the "metadata" surrounding the calls were provided, not any sort of recording. (That would basically amount to wiretapping.) 

Still, the depth and breadth of this project is nothing short of stunning, and not just to journalists and the general public. Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the writers of the Patriot Act, has spoken out with concerns over this development. Writing to Attorney General Eric Holder, Sensenbrenner questioned the constitutionality of this initiative: "I do not believe the broadly drafted FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American." 

The Congressman is referring to the order granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) on April 25, which gave "the government unlimited authority" to collect the data for three months, ending on July 19. According to the order, Verizon is legally bound to provide the records on an "ongoing, daily basis" until then. Sensenbrenner is not the only one outraged at the revelation. It has become a lightning rod for other politicians, including members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as civil liberties advocates like the ACLU. 

Perhaps even more troubling than the data seizure is the covert nature of the operation. The company was essentially gagged from informing customers. The Guardian writes

"The court order expressly bars Verizon from disclosing to the public either the existence of the FBI's request for its customers' records, or the court order itself."

Where do you stand on this matter? Do you believe the U.S. government is violating civil liberties in this over-reaching "drag net" approach? Or do you believe that it is acting appropriately, given the state of national security today? Let us know whether you are for or against this anti-terrorism initiative in the comments.