Bush defends spying after NSA database report

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Agency collecting information on tens of millions of Americans, paper says

WASHINGTON – Following a report that the U.S. agency in charge of a domestic spying program is building a database of every phone call made in the country, President Bush on Thursday told the nation from the White House that all anti-terrorism efforts are within the law.

Facing new concerns in Congress, President Bush referred to the report but did not confirm or deny it and instead sought to assure Americans that their privacy is being fiercely protected.

We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans, Bush said before leaving for a commencement address at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Biloxi. Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaida and their known affiliates.”

Gen. Michael Hayden, in line to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, downplayed fears of abuse. “Everything that NSA does is lawful and very carefully done. And … the appropriate members of the Congress, House and Senate, are briefed on all NSA activities. And I think I’ll just leave it at that.”…continued

     

Hayden, who headed the NSA from 1999 to 2005, made his comments Thursday on Capitol Hill after a meeting with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the assistant Senate majority leader.

Hayden vowed to do everything in his power to fight terrorism, and we will do so within the laws of our country.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would call phone company executives to appear before the panel to find out exactly what is going on.

We’re really flying blind on the subject, and that’s not a good way to approach the Fourth Amendment and the constitutional issues involving privacy, Specter said of domestic surveillance in general.

USA Today reports on NSA database

USA Today reported Thursday that the National Security Agency has been building up the database using records provided by three major phone companies AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. but that the program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations.

Instead it documents who talks to whom in personal and business calls, whether local or long distance, by tracking which numbers are called, the newspaper said.

USA Today said its sources for the story were people with direct knowledge of the arrangement, but it did not give their names or describe their affiliation.

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.

But another Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told Fox News Channel: The idea of collecting millions or thousands of phone numbers how does that fit into following the enemy?

Hayden would have overseen the call-tracking program during his tenure at NSA, USA Today reported. A White House spokeswoman said Hayden’s nomination to be CIA director was going full steam ahead.

Feinstein, Kerry reactions

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has spoken favorably of Hayden’s nomination, said the latest revelation is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of Gen. Hayden.

Added Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.: It is long overdue for this Congress to end the days of roll over and rubber stamp and finally assert its power of advise and consent before Gen. Hayden becomes (CIA) Director Hayden.

A key House Republican also voiced reservations. Hayden will have a lot more explaining to do, Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters.

Boehner said he knew nothing of the program before the revelations, adding that he is concerned and determined to find out what is going on, NBC News reported Thursday.

I’m not sure why it would be necessary to have that information, he said of the phone records.

‘Largest database ever’

The existence of an NSA eavesdropping program launched after the Sept. 11 attacks was revealed in December.

Defending the controversial program, Bush and his administration officials have said it aims to uncover links between international terrorists and their domestic collaborators and only targets communications between a person inside the United States and a person overseas.

But USA Today reported that calls originating and terminating within the United States have not escaped the NSA’s attention.

It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world, the paper quoted one source as saying. The agency’s goal is to create a database of every call ever made within U.S. borders, it said the source added.

The NSA has access to records of billions of domestic calls, USA Today said. Although customers’ names and addresses are not being handed over, the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information, it said.

Where does it stop?’

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sounded incredulous about the report and railed against what he called a lack of congressional oversight. He argued that the media was doing the job of Congress.

Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al-Qaida? Leahy asked. These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything. … Where does it stop?

The Democrat, who at one point held up a copy of the newspaper, added: Shame on us for being so far behind and being so willing to rubber-stamp anything this administration does. We ought to fold our tents.

Phone companies respond

The phone companies said Thursday 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.

Among major U.S. telecommunications companies, only Qwest Communications International Inc. has refused to help the NSA program, the paper said.

Qwest, with 14 million customers in the Western United States, was uneasy about the legal implications of handing over customer information to the government without warrants, USA Today said.

It said the three companies cooperating with the NSA provide local and wireless phone service to more than 200 million customers.

The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News’ Mike Viqueira contributed to this report.

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