Former Rep. Peter Hoekstra, who was chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, recalls a cryptic telephone call from the White House in August 2004: “Come on over. We’ve got something to tell you.”
At that meeting, Vice President Dick Cheney and Michael V. Hayden, director of the National Security Agency, told him about the Terrorist Surveillance Program — the NSA’s project to gather billions of phone records. Prism, the phone-snooping program that has ensnared the country in a debate over privacy and terrorism, eventually replaced the TSP.
Mr. Hoekstra, of Michigan, is one of several Republicans who are defending President Obama’s reliance on Internet and telephone surveillance, such as Prism, to keep up with a cunning enemy.
“On some of this stuff, this is really Bush on steroids. As a senator, Obama became a very harsh critic. He became president, and he took what I thought was an effective tool and put it on steroids,” said Mr. Hoekstra, who spent three years at the helm of the intelligence committee.
The Bush administration took the TSP and augmented it in 2007 with Prism, a computer program geared to infiltrate social media servers and allow NSA analysts to access emails, chat rooms and the postings of people overseas deemed potential terrorism threats.
The NSA’s use of Prism has grown greatly under Mr. Obama, according to the agency’s own PowerPoint presentation published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post. The NSA now obtains court orders to invade the servers of nine of a who’s who of Internet service companies, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft.
Mr. Hoekstra’s Republican successor as committee chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, told ABC News on Sunday that layers of safeguards are in place as a result of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was updated in 2008 and again in 2012.
Mr. Rogers said that it is the secret FISA court that told the intelligence community to create the phone records data bank because telecommunications companies routinely destroy the massive files.
“When you want to access that information, you have to use this very specific court order and approval process, which means it has to be a foreign person believed to be on a foreign land,” Mr. Rogers said.
“The government acquires records as business records from the telecom providers, but then doesn’t go into that database without an arguable reason connected to terrorism to ask that database a question,” he told Fox News. “If you don’t have any link to that original predicate, terrorism, your phone records are never touched.”
He said that if the NSA picks up a telephone number for a terrorist in Pakistan’s tribal areas, an al Qaeda hotbed, it can use the database of phone calls to create a history.
“So, you do retain the information so that you can ask questions of it in the future,” Mr. Hayden said. “With regard to abuse, there are no records of abuse under President Bush, under President Obama.”
Mr. Hoekstra said the NSA needs to determine how Mr. Snowden, a contractor employed by Booz Allen Hamilton and stationed by the NSA in Hawaii to maintain computer architecture, was able to gain access to documents unrelated to his job — top-secret court orders and the Prism PowerPoint.
“This has been decided by the executive branch and by Congress that this needs to happen,” Mr. Hoekstra said. “You can’t have one person go out and say, ‘The executive branch, the legislative branch and the courts — they’re all wrong and I’m right and I’m going to go tell the press and tell the world about this.’”