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Rogers said once the data has been collected, officials still must follow "a court-approved method and a series of checks and balances to even make the query on a particular number."
But Jim Harper, a communications and privacy expert at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, questioned the effectiveness of pattern analyses to intercept terrorism. He said that kind of analysis would produce many false positives and give the government access to intricate data about people's calling habits.
Verizon Executive Vice President and General Counsel Randy Milch, in a blog post, said the company isn't allowed to comment on any such court order.
"Verizon continually takes steps to safeguard its customers' privacy," he wrote. "Nevertheless, the law authorizes the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances, and if Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply."
The company 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 NSA had no immediate comment. The agency is sensitive to perceptions that it might be spying on Americans. It distributes a brochure that pledges the agency "is unwavering in its respect for U.S. laws and Americans' civil liberties -- and its commitment to accountability."
Under Bush, the NSA built a highly classified wiretapping program to monitor emails and phone calls worldwide. The full details of that program remain unknown, but one aspect was to monitor massive numbers of incoming and outgoing U.S. calls to look for suspicious patterns, said an official familiar with the program. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
After The New York Times revealed the existence of that wiretapping program, the data collection continued under the Patriot Act, the official said. The official did not know if the program was continuous or whether it stopped and restarted at times.
The FISA court order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compelled Verizon to provide the NSA with electronic copies of "all call detail records or telephony metadata created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad" or "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls," The Guardian said.
The law on which the order explicitly relies is the "business records" provision of the Patriot Act.
Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Lara Jakes, David Espo and Jack Gillum in Washington and Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this report.