TODAY   |  June 06, 2013

Report: NSA collecting Verizon phone records

Under a top-secret court order issued in April, Verizon is required to hand over the phone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency. NBC’s Chuck Todd reports and NBC counterterrorism analyst Michael Leiter discusses the implications.

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>>> at least for now of one of the country's largest communication companies.

>> according to a report, a court order dating back to april requires the phone company verizon to turn over phone records on an ongoing daily basis to the national security agency . we're talking about the private calls of americans whether they've been suspected of a crime or not. the phone record data not the content of the call. we want to get right to chuck todd . chuck, good morning to you.

>> good morning, savannah. this is part of a secret surveillance, domestic surveillance program that was first launched during the bush administration . and in order to do this court order , the obama administration is essentially exploiting a part of the highly controversial patriot act . of course, all of this became public when the actual court order itself that allowed -- that forced verizon to turn over those records was turned over to the british newspaper "the guardian." the document shows for the first time that under the obama administration , the communication records of millions of u.s. citizens are being collected in bulk regardless of whether there was suspicion of any wrong doing.

>> one possibility is there's actually a threat, you know. an imminent threat that the united states faces in which the u.s. government feels compelled to expand broadly in an almost unprecedented way, the scope of their investigations.

>> under the terms of the secret court order, verizon is required to hand over the location of the caller, recipient and time and duration of all calls. the content of the conversations are not covered. verizon is required on an ongoing daily basis to give the national security agency information on all telephone calls in its system. the nsa implemented a similar program under the bush administration after 9/11. that collected domestic, telephone, internet and e-mail records.

>> i think the administration 's going to be -- have to be forthcoming or this is more likely to grow bigger rather than smaller.

>> overnight, reaction was swift.

>> between the total failure of attorney general holder and his team and the irs scandal and all other things we're watching, why would anyone trust the government to keep its word.

>> and former vice president al gore tweeted, in digital era, privacy must be a priority. is it just me or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous.

>> reporter: now, we only know it's verizon because the court order that was leaked to the "guardian" only talked about verizon . it's very possible other cell phone carriers also were issued this subpoena by the federal government . and one more thing, savannah, the obama administration finally responded this morning. and while they did not confirm this report, they're defending the practice and say all branches of government are aware when things like this happen.

>> all right. chuck, standby for a moment. they're not kwirpi iconfirming the report, not denying it either. he served as the director of the national counterterrorism center in the obama administration . michael, good morning to you.

>> good morning, savannah.

>> i want to get your reaction as somebody who served at the highest levels in counterterrorism in the administration . does this surprise you?

>> yes. it does.

>> because this is incredibly broad in its sweep. as we understand it, the administration is ordering verizon to turn over records not just of suspected terrorists, but every customer of verizon . can you explain what the justification for that might possibly be?

>> well, it is surprising. but i think it's surprising because my guess is we don't actually see the full story. what's also required by law is that not all of this information which is collected can actually be used and sent about. so the judge orders this collection and then the government has to have additional protections in place about who can look at it, how it can be used. and then there's oversight of that. and that oversight makes it, i think, very, very different than the bush administration . this would be oversight by congress and judicial branch by this court. until that comes out, it's hard for people to understand.

>> to be clear, there is judicial oversight and presumably the administration would've had to provide some kind of justification in terms of a specific threat. in other words, the administration is not permitted to go on a fishing expedition and collect all these records hoping it might find something.

>> and i think that's why this is shocking to people. this represents a collection. the question then is how the government looks at it and uses it. and without knowing what the protections are about those pieces, it looks like the same blanket surveillance which has occurred in the past. and i don't think that's going to turn out to be the case.

>> and let me bring chuck in really quickly. as we well know, the nation's been following several scandals, now we have this leak of a classified court order . what do you think the political fallout would be?

>> reporter: well, this is going to be bipartisan outrage. there's a democratic senator from oregon who savannah has been hinting at these broad powers that essentially have been buried and allowed in the patriot act . he's been hinting at this without saying it as it was clear that the administration had been giving congress some classified briefings about what they've been doing. there has been outrage going on at capitol hill . it's going to be the political fallout, savannah. as you're going to see, bipartisan outrage. it won't be conservative libertarian types upset about this, but a lot of libertarian liberals and civil liberty liberals who are going to be outraged by what's going on.

>> a story we'll hear a lot more about for sure. thank you very much. and