New disclosures of a secret government initiative to track domestic phone calls Thursday compelled President Bush to assure Americans that their privacy is being protected in the hunt for al Qaeda and affiliated terrorists.
The government’s collection of the records of billions of phone calls from three major telecommunications firms, reported Thursday by USA Today, stunned an administration already on the defensive over Bush’s nomination Monday of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden as CIA director.
“We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans,” Bush said in brief, hastily scheduled remarks before leaving to deliver a graduation address at a Mississippi community college. “Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates. So far, we’ve been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil.”
Bush added: “The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval.”
Bush and his aides did not confirm or deny the report that the government has purchased the phone records, enabling the National Security Agency to compile a massive database it could search for patterns or ties to suspicious contacts.
The government’s payments to AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth for the domestic phone records came to light almost five months after the New York Times reported that the NSA was monitoring calls between people in the United States and overseas contacts believed to be al Qaeda members or to have other terrorist ties.
Hayden ran the foreign surveillance program as NSA head until April 2005, when he took his present post as the government’s deputy director of intelligence. His nomination to lead the CIA reignited debate over the electronic eavesdropping, and the new disclosures of a separate domestic spying program further fueled the controversy.
The Justice Department said Wednesday it was abandoning an investigation of the foreign surveillance initiative revealed in December because the NSA had refused to grant Justice Department employees the necessary security clearances to examine records tied to the highly classified program.
Regarding the domestic initiative, AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth handle at least 70 percent of U.S. phone traffic, with more than 200 million customers. All three phone giants released statements saying they are committed to protecting their customers’ privacy and have not violated any laws.
Denver-based Qwest, with 14 million customers, declined to provide its records to the government, according to USA Today.
“The government has no interest in knowing what innocent Americans are talking about on their domestic phone calls,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters on Air Force One as they accompanied Bush to Mississippi.
“So, if you are calling to make reservations at a restaurant, and if you are calling your daughter at college, or if you are calling to plan your wedding, the government has no interest in knowing about those calls,” Perino said. “The government is interested in finding out if al Qaeda if planning an attack in America.”
Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, criticized disclosure of the program.
“This is nuts,” Kyl said. “We are in a war, and we’ve got to collect intelligence on the enemy, and you can’t tell the enemy in advance how you are going to do it.”
But lawmakers from both parties questioned whether tracking domestic phone records was helpful or necessary in the country’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, response to radical Islamic terrorism.
“The idea of collecting millions or thousands of phone numbers _ how does that fit into following the enemy?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told Fox News.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, held up a copy of USA Today during a meeting of the panel.
“Shame on us for being so far behind, and being so willing to rubber-stamp anything this administration does,” Leahy said. “The Republican-controlled Congress refuses to ask questions, and so we have to pick up the paper to find out what is going on.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, defended Bush.
“I strongly agree with the president of the United States that our ultimate responsibility is the safety and security of the American people,” Frist said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a former federal prosecutor, said people were overreacting to news of the government’s record-keeping of Americans’ phone calls.
“I don’t think this action is nearly as troublesome as (is) being made out here because they are not tapping our phones,” he said.
Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would summon officers of AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth to testify.
“When we can’t find out from the Department of Justice or other administration officials, we’re going to call on those telephone companies to provide information to try to figure out exactly what is going on,” Specter said.
The Bush administration has friendly ties to two of the phone companies that cooperated with the NSA.
James Cicconi, AT&T’s senior vice president for legislative affairs, served for two years as White House deputy chief of staff for the first President Bush. William Barr, Verizon’s general counsel, was attorney general under the elder Bush.
“Americans are alarmed _ and rightly so _ because this administration continues to operate parts of the NSA program in violation of FISA and the Fourth Amendment,” said Rep. Jane Harman of California, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act _ FISA _ in 1979, which established a secret 11-judge court to rule on warrant requests from the Justice Department to conduct wiretaps on overseas communications. Bush bypassed the court in authorizing the electronic eavesdropping soon after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hayden’s nomination to head the CIA has come under fire both because he is an active-duty general and because he played a central role in the post-9/11 domestic surveillance.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had praised Hayden earlier in the week. But she said Thursday that the new disclosures of a more expansive NSA role under his command could harm his nomination.
“I believe we are on our way to a major constitutional confrontation on Fourth Amendment guarantees of unreasonable search and seizure,” Feinstein said. “I think this is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of General Hayden. And that is very regretted.”
Journalism advocates said disclosure of the domestic phone surveillance could further harm reporters’ ability to obtain information on sensitive subjects, such as the Washington Post articles that received the Pulitzer Prize this year for revealing the CIA’s use of secret overseas prisons.
“I’m sure that among the interesting patterns (the government is) looking for, they’ve identified some reporters, and they’re looking for patterns of who they’ve been talking to,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “That is horrifying.”
Bush, though, criticized officials who pass on important information to reporters.
“As a general matter, every time sensitive intelligence is leaked, it hurts our ability to defeat this enemy,” he said.
Bush’s aides recently acknowledged that he had authorized the release of classified data on Iraqi lethal weapons to build his case for going to war there.
Greg Gordon of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report