From 2001 to 2007, the Bush Administration secretly collected and analyzed telephone records without a warrant. Telecom companies probably broke the law by cooperating with the surveillance program, which led to a controversial law to grant the phone companies immunity for their role in this surveillance.
In 2007, the Bush Administration changed course, and started using the process established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). That meant getting warrants from federal judges in secret court proceedings authorized by FISA.
During the 2008 election, Senator Barack Obama supported the telecom immunity legislation. Obama advisor Greg Craig explained that, “it was better to get a compromise than letting the [FISA] law expire.” The decision was deeply disappointing to many Obama supporters:
“I don’t think there has been another instance where, in meaningful numbers, his supporters have opposed him like this,” said Glenn Greenwald, a Salon.com writer who opposes Mr. Obama’s new position. “For him to suddenly turn around and endorse this proposal is really a betrayal of what so many of his supporters believed he believed in.”
It is definitely major news to confirm that the Obama Administration has been continuing to use FISA courts for large scale surveillance of phone records. That said, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising given Obama’s strong support for FISA surveillance back when he was a Senator. Obama viewed FISA as important enough to justify a vote for telecom immunity, since it was seen as a necessary compromise to reauthorize FISA.
The phone surveillance conducted under the Obama Administration seems to be a continuation of a policy set in the last years of the Bush Administration. But it is not a continuation of the illegal surveillance that took place during most of the Bush Administration, which led to the passage of the telecom immunity law. At least Obama got a warrant.