In the first semi-official comment from the White House about The Guardian's Verizon/NSA phone-snooping scoop, the administration didn't admit to collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans. But they didn't say they wouldn't do that either. An anonymous "senior administration official" would not confirm that the Glenn Greenwald story was true or that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order was legitimate, but they did tell media outlets on Thursday that the requests are "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats."
The order in question, which was issued in April, compelled Verizon to give the National Security Agency information on all phone calls that were routed through its network over a period of three months. The classified order was published in The Guardian on Wednesday, and though it doesn't mention any other telephone companies, it's possible that similar orders were issued to them as well.
The same administration official also reiterated to the AP that while the information collected includes phone numbers, location data, and call times, it doesn't include the contents of any phone conversation.
After overnight silence, Obama admin finally responds to Guardian report. Won't confirm specifics but defends the practice.— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) June 6, 2013
NBC News's Chuck Todd also reported that administration official (presumably the same person) told him that "all branches of government are aware" when orders like this are issued, implying that members of Congress, as well as the President, were likely briefed on the matter beforehand.
We'll have to see if President Obama comes forward to discuss this soon, but it looks the government's defense is going to take the usual path when it comes to Patriot Act-style surveillance: This is normal behavior, it's for our own safety, and there's nothing to see here. It's also likely to lead to yet another aggressive investigation of who is giving classified information to the media.
UPDATE (11:55 A.M.): From inside Verizon....