Remember how the NSA's warrantless spying program is supposedly limited to "international" calls, and even then only to calls in which the government has reason to believe that a terrorist is on the line? Turns out, it's not true.
As USA Today reports, the NSA has, since shortly after 9/11, "been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans." The goal, the paper says, is "to create a database of every call ever made."
The massive monitoring program doesn't involve listening in on the calls, as the program the New York Times revealed last year does. Rather, this NSA effort collects information about the calls -- the number called, the date, time and duration of the call -- "to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity," USA Today says. And while the program apparently doesn't collect the names of the individuals and businesses who own the phone lines from which or to which calls are made or placed, getting that information is pretty simple once you've got the phone numbers in question.
How widespread is the practice? USA Today says that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth are turning call data over to the NSA; Qwest has refused. At one point in discussions with the government, USA Today says, lawyers for Qwest said that, if the NSA wanted the call data so badly, it should go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to have its monitoring program approved. The NSA refused, the paper says, quoting "one person" who says that the NSA's lawyers said that the court might not agree with the agency's plan.
So, is it legal? About as legal as the other part of the warrantless spying program, it seems. As USA Today notes, law enforcement officials have, in the past, had to obtain warrants before getting lists of calls made from a particular number -- and existing law imposes fines on phone companies that turn over such lists without seeing a warrant first.