U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder said Thursday that members of Congress have been kept up to speed on the National Security Agency's collection of millions of telephone records and that he would be willing to discuss the issue further in additional closed-door briefings.
Mr. Holder's assurance that lawmakers have been "fully briefed" came during his testimony before the Senate Committee on Appropriations and after Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, sought confirmation that the NSA was not spying on members of Congress.
"I don't think this is an appropriate setting to discuss this issue," Mr. Holder said. He later clarified that "there has been no intention to do anything of that nature — that is to spy on members of Congress, to spy on members of the Supreme Court, and without getting into anything specific I will say this ... that members of Congress have been fully briefed as these issues, matters, have been underway."
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, cut off Mr. Holder at that point and mocked the notion that members of Congress are ever fully briefed.
"This fully brief is something that drives us up a wall because often fully briefed usually means a group of eight [members of] leadership," Ms. Mikulski said.
She requested that Mr. Holder meet with the committee for a closed briefing and suggested that the full Senate be briefed on the issue.
Mr. Holder's appearance before the appropriations committee came a day after the Guardian newspaper reported that the FBI had obtained a secret order from a Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court through a controversial provision in the U.S. Patriot Act requiring Verizon to turn over its phone records on a daily basis to the NSA.
The report sparked outrage from several civil liberties group and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and a likely 2016 presidential contender, said the secret collection of telephone records amounted to a "an astounding assault on the Constitution."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, though, defended the administration during the appropriations committee hearing, saying that the NSA is protecting the country by trying to track down terrorists.
"I am a Verizon customer," the South Carolina Republican said. "It doesn't bother me one bit for the national security administration to have my phone number because what they are trying to do is find out about what terrorist groups we know about and who the hell they are calling. If my number pops up on some terrorist's phone, I am confident that the FISA court is not going to allow my phone calls to be monitored by my government unless you and others can prove to them that I am up to a terrorist activity through a probable cause standard."
Mr. Graham said that the consequences of taking away this executive power "would be catastrophic."
"President Bush started it. President Obama is continuing it. We need it from my point of view," Mr. Graham said.
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