The Obama administration will be bracing itself for a torrent of hostile questions this morning following the apparent revelation that the National Security Agency has been data-mining the phone records of tens of millions of ordinary Americans.

Not to be confused with eavesdropping, or bugging the phones of those suspected of conspiring to commit a terrorist or criminal offense, the top secret court order published by ‘The Guardianappears to show that the NSA has been trawling the anonymous ‘metadata’ of potentially billions of phone-calls.

On the one hand, American might take comfort that the ‘internals’ of their phone conversations – ie. the voices themselves – are not being routinely recorded, but on the other, it seems from this leak that potentially everyone with a phone is under some form of surveillance in the USA.

Studies have shown that while anonymous, the ‘metadata’ – records of location data, call duration, unique identifiers – can provide a surprising amount of information, surprisingly quickly when zeroed in on by investigators.

For Mr Obama – a president who prided himself on his liberal credentials – this leak is a potentially devastating revelation since it exposes him to attack on two fronts – from both the libertarian Right and the liberal Left.

Already the administration has been hammered over its aggressive prosecution of leakers, including what appeared to be an attempt to criminalize a Fox News journalist, James Rosen, for working a source to obtain a leak from the State Department about North Korea.

That story caused the New York Times – usually a reliable friend of the Obama administration – to write a seething editorial accusing the Department of Justice of over-reaching, and using its powers to send a “chilling” message to the media.

It is not clear how wide the NSA data-mining project goes, it’s effectiveness as a counter-terrorism tool in identifying potential terrorist or criminal cells or – indeed – whether it has been used for any other purposes.

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