NSA call tracking starts furor
The news that the spy agency has been compiling a database of calls within the United States draws fire from both sides.
By BILL ADAIR
Published May 12, 2006
WASHINGTON — A new spying controversy erupted Thursday as lawmakers from both parties expressed alarm over a news report that the National Security Agency has been secretly tracking phone calls of millions of Americans.
Senators called news conferences and appeared on television to raise questions about why the NSA is building a huge database of the phone-dialing habits of tens of millions of Americans, using information provided by AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp.
USA Today, citing anonymous sources familiar with the arrangement, said the spy agency uses the phone records to look for calling patterns that might indicate terrorist activity.
Lawmakers demanded answers about the program and said they were concerned it might be an unwarranted intrusion on personal privacy.
“I am not sure why it would be necessary to keep and have that kind of information,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the Fox News Channel: “The idea of collecting millions or thousands of phone numbers — how does that fit into following the enemy?”
The White House would not confirm the existence of the program, but in a hastily arranged appearance, President Bush said the intelligence-gathering efforts “strictly target al-Qaida” and comply with the law.
“We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans,” Bush said.
But the USA Today story suggested otherwise.
The newspaper said that although the government wasn’t eavesdropping on the calls, it was collecting the database to identify people who have links to terrorists. The spy agency’s goal was to create a database of every call ever made in the United States, a source told the newspaper. The records presumably include all calls made by ordinary Americans to family members, co-workers, business colleagues and friends.
The newspaper said the program is part of a domestic spying effort that is “far more expansive” than the White House has acknowledged.
The president said last year that he authorized NSA to listen, without warrants, to international phone calls involving Americans suspected of terrorist links.
That revelation ignited a controversy, as well as significant debate in Congress over whether the White House violated constitutional protections by eavesdropping on phone calls without seeking a court’s approval.
USA Today said the telephone companies began turning over calling records of tens of millions of their customers’ phone calls to the NSA shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The companies said Thursday they were protecting customers’ privacy, but also had 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.
One big telecommunications company, Qwest Communications International Inc., has refused to turn over records to the program, USA Today said.
The NSA would not comment on the story, except to say the agency was complying with the law.
The disclosure could complicate Bush’s bid to win confirmation of former NSA director Michael Hayden as CIA director. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the disclosure “raises new questions about whether Gen. Hayden should be named head of the CIA. He was director of the NSA at the time this program was undertaken. It clearly contradicts statements he and Bush made on the scope of domestic surveillance.”
Hayden, who was visiting senators Thursday to seek support for confirmation, told reporters that “Everything that NSA does is lawful and very carefully done. The appropriate members of the Congress — the House and Senate — are briefed on all NSA activities.”
Members of Congress called for hearings on the program.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., wrote the leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee to ask for an investigation. “We must make sure our country is secure, but we must also protect our privacy,” he said.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, asked Speaker Dennis Hastert to open an inquiry. “We must determine the facts and whether the government is upholding our laws and our values,” she said.
Former Sen. Bob Graham, who once chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the Bush administration should have gotten congressional approval. He said it appears the program violates the constitutional guarantee against search and seizure without reasonable cause.
But some senators and House members defended the program.
“These are calls that are not listened in on,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said on Fox News. “This is a matching of phone numbers that is done in a way that obviously is very sophisticated, but is not listening in on phone calls.”
If the government wants to eavesdrop on calls, “that’s done under court order through the standard system,” Frist said.
— Staff writer Dave Gussow contributed to this report, which included information from the Associated Press.