NEW YORK (AP) - Former employees of the National Security Agency say the publishing of a court order asking Verizon to hand over all its phone calling records for a three-month period opens a new window on an operation that has been in place for years and involves all major U.S. phone companies.
"You can bet it's all the other carriers, not just Verizon," said Kirk Wiebe, a former analyst with the NSA. Weibe left the agency after the attacks of 9/11 in disgust, he says, over what he believes is a chronic failure to analyze large amounts of data effectively and with proper privacy protections.
Late Wednesday, British newspaper The Guardian published an order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, requesting that Verizon give the NSA the details on every phone call on its landline and wireless networks on a daily basis from April 25 to July 19.
"These are routine orders," said Thomas Drake, another former NSA employee. "What's new is we're seeing an actual order, and people are surprised by it."
"We've been saying this for years from the wilderness," Drake told news program "Democracy Now" on Thursday. "But it's like, 'Hey, everybody went to sleep while the government is collecting all these records.'"
Drake started working for the NSA in 2001 and blew the whistle on what he saw as a wasteful and invasive program at the agency. He was later prosecuted for keeping classified information.
Most of the charges were dropped before trial, and he was sentenced to one year of probation and community service.
William Binney, who left the agency with Wiebe after complaining about its inefficiency, estimates that the NSA collects records on 3 billion calls per day.
Wiebe sees the large-scale data gathering as a sign that the NSA isn't doing things right.
"To me, it reflects incompetence. If I cannot separate innocent from guilty, I'm incompetent," Wiebe said in an interview with The Associated Press.
In the late 1990s, Wiebe and Binney designed a system that they said could analyze vast amounts of data while preserving privacy protections, but they were frustrated by the agency's disregard for privacy and its choice of another system. The agency assures the public that it uses its data responsibly, but Wiebe believes the protections need to be coded into its software systems.
"There are technologies available to do it the right way," Wiebe said. "We don't need to sacrifice privacy for this."
The NSA had no immediate comment. The White House on Thursday defended the agency's need to collect the records.