WASHINGTON — President Bush today defended his administration’s decision to collect information on tens of millions of domestic phone calls, saying the National Security Agency program was legal, protects the privacy of Americans and helps guard the nation against terrorist attacks.
“We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans,” he said. Instead, the NSA’s efforts “strictly target al-Qaeda and their known affiliates.”
USA TODAY reported in today’s editions that AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., and BellSouth Corp. telephone companies have turned over records of tens of millions of their customers’ phone calls to the NSA since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The newspaper cited anonymous sources it said had direct knowledge of the arrangement.
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The story sparked fierce debate on Capitol Hill. But in defending his actions, Bush said that “if al-Qaeda or their associates are making calls into the United States or out of the United States, we want to know what they’re saying.” He said everything he has authorized has been “within the law.”
“The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval,” Bush added. And, he said, “the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities.”
Bush also indirectly addressed the potential impact of the USA TODAY story. “Every time sensitive intelligence is leaked,” he said, “it hurts our ability to defeat this enemy.”
On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats demanded answers from the Bush administration about the USA TODAY report.
“It is our government, it’s not one party’s government. It’s America’s government. Those entrusted with great power have a duty to answer to Americans what they are doing,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said he would call the phone companies to appear before the panel “to find out exactly what is going on.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she had previously been briefed by the administration on “some” of the domestic data collection program, but said she still finds it “alarming.” Pelosi said she is going to call on House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to “ask him if we can immediately begin a review of this in a very calm way, in a very non-partisan way — this is about the safety of the American people, but as we protect and defend the American people we must protect and defend the Constitution.”
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked “why are the telephone companies not protecting their customers? I think they have a social responsibility to people who do business with them to protect our privacy as long there isn’t some suspicion that we’re a terrorist or a criminal or something.”
“I don’t know enough about the details except that I am willing to find out because I’m not sure why it would be necessary to keep and have that kind of information,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News Channel: “The idea of collecting millions or thousands of phone numbers, how does that fit into following the enemy?”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said bringing the telephone companies before the Judiciary Committee is an important step.
“We need more. We need to take this seriously, more seriously than some other matters that might come before the committee because our privacy as American citizens is at stake,” Durbin said.
“I believe we are on our way to a major constitutional confrontation on Fourth Amendment guarantees of unreasonable search and seizure,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “I think this is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of General (Michael) Hayden (to be CIA director). And that is very regretted.”
There were voices of support for the White House.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., argued that the program “is not a warrantless wiretapping of the American people. I don’t think this action is nearly as troublesome as being made out here, because they are not tapping our phones.”
“The hyperbolic language is just ridiculous,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “To suggest that there’s some sort of coverup is not correct, and the motivation of those who would suggest otherwise is obvious. We need to be conscious of what’s at stake: the security and safety of the American people. That should not fall prey to petty, partisan politics. One of the reasons the administration doesn’t tell more members of Congress about such programs is because Congress leaks.”
Some lawmakers said the revelations could hurt the nomination of Hayden, who was head of the NSA from 1999-2004 and has defended the administration’s so-called eavesdropping program.
The report about domestic data collection “will not help (Hayden’s nomination),” said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. “I’m a supporter of Gen. Hayden. I think this will hurt him.”
Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that in his confirmation hearings, “General Hayden must demonstrate a willingness to be forthcoming with the Congress.”
For their part, the companies said that they are protecting customers’ privacy but have an obligation to assist law enforcement and government agencies in ensuring the nation’s security. “We prize the trust our customers place in us. If and when AT&T is asked to help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions,” the company said in a statement, echoed by the others.
Contributing: USA TODAY’s Mark Memmott and The Associated Press.
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