The Obama administration on Thursday defended its secret seizure of the phone records of millions of U.S. citizens as part of counterterrorism efforts, while privacy advocates blasted the move as illegal and a debate erupted in Congress over the intended scope of a key surveillance law.
The revelation that the National Security Agency has been collecting phone records from Verizon Communications Inc. of all U.S. calls, whether domestic or international, raised accusations that President Obama is running a police state, in spite of his 2008 campaign promise to expand civil liberties while prosecuting the war on terrorism differently from his Republican predecessor.
On Thursday, the scope of the records seizure apparently expanded as former government officials familiar with the details of the domestic spying said more phone companies likely are involved and lawmakers said the court order is a routine three-month update of an ongoing program.
A White House official said such domestic surveillance is a “critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats.”
“It allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States,” said White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest. “The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to call details, such as a telephone number or the length of a telephone call.”
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The timing of the report came as the Obama administration is already taking fire over civil liberties issues, from the IRS targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny to the Justice Department seizing the phone records of journalists in efforts to uncover the sources of leaks of classified information.
Lawmakers of both parties on the Senate Intelligence Committee said the wholesale domestic surveillance has been going on for seven years, and that it’s necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.
“It’s called protecting America,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, saying that the secret court order which Britain’s Guardian newspaper posted online Wednesday night is a routine three-month renewal and proves that the program is carefully overseen by federal judges.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, said the surveillance has “proved meritorious, because we have gathered significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.”
But other lawmakers called the seizures an outrageous invasion of privacy and they said the Patriot Act, under which the snooping was granted, was never intended to allow for blanket surveillance of Americans without any suspicion of wrongdoing.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., who as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee helped write the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said the administration’s massive collection of phone records is an “abuse” of the law.
“How could the phone records of so many innocent Americans be relevant to an authorized investigation as required by the act?” the Wisconsin Republican wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, also raised the possibility of administration officials lying to Congress in service of the program. He posted on his Twitter feed a video in which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper “specifically told me #NSA does not wittingly collect any type of data on millions of Americans.”
“No, sir … not wittingly,” Mr. Clapper told Mr. Wyden at the March hearing in response to a question worded nearly identical to the senator’s Thursday tweet, though he cautioned that NSA could “inadvertently collect” such data.