Washington — Lawmakers demanded answers from the Bush administration Thursday about a spy agency secretly collecting records of millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls to build a database of all calls within the country.
Facing mounting congressional criticism, President Bush sought to assure Americans that their civil liberties were "fiercely protected."
"The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval," said Bush, without confirming the program of the National Security Agency. "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."
The disclosure, reported in USA Today, could complicate Bush's bid to win confirmation of former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden as CIA director. It also reignited concerns about privacy rights and touched off questions about the legal underpinnings for the government's actions and the diligence of the Republican-controlled Congress' oversight of a GOP administration.
"Everything that NSA does is lawful and very carefully done," Hayden said while making rounds at the Capitol to advocate for his confirmation. "The appropriate members of the Congress - the House and Senate - are briefed on all NSA activities."
The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said he was shocked by the reported activities.
"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.
AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. telephone companies began turning over records of millions of their customers' phone calls to the NSA program shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, said USA Today, citing anonymous sources it said had direct knowledge of the arrangement.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he would call the phone companies to appear before the panel in pursuit of what had transpired.
"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.
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.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said NSA was using the data to analyze calling patterns in order to detect and track suspected terrorist activity, according to information provided to him by the White House.
"Telephone customers' names, addresses and other personal information have not be handed over to NSA as part of this program," he said.
Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's telecommunications and Internet panel, had a different view: "The NSA stands for Now Spying on Americans."
Millions of calls
Claims about the existence of the program emerged earlier this year.
In January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy rights group, alleged in a federal lawsuit that AT&T Inc. had given the NSA direct access to the records of the more than 300 million domestic and international calls and a huge volume of Internet data traffic. AT&T Inc. includes the AT&T Corp. and SBC Communications Inc.
The class action lawsuit asked a court to halt the collection of the data as an illegal invasion of citizens' privacy.
The Justice Department told the court late last month it would seek to dismiss the case under the state secrets privilege but said that effort "should not be construed as a confirmation or denial" of the alleged surveillance activities.
The foundation's suit added that its evidence substantially confirmed a Dec. 25 Los Angeles Times report that since 9-11 "NSA has had a direct hookup into the database" at AT&T code-named "Daytona," which "keeps track of telephone numbers on both ends of calls as well as the duration of all landline calls."
On Capitol Hill, several lawmakers expressed incredulity about the program, with some Republicans questioning the rationale and several Democrats railing about a lack of congressional oversight.
"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, who wanted more details.
House Democrats called for a special counsel to investigate the NSA's activities. West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who is to be briefed on all NSA activities, also called current congressional oversight "woefully inadequate."
But Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., lamented leaks and said a select panel overseeing Bush's warrantless surveillance program, which was disclosed in December, has been fully informed of NSA activities.
"Calls for further oversight are unnecessary," he said.
NSA is the same spy agency that conducts the controversial eavesdropping program that had been acknowledged earlier by Bush. The president said last year that he authorized the NSA to listen, without warrants, to international phone calls involving Americans when terrorism is suspected.