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.
In a new development, the National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies in real time, obtaining audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails and other information, various news outlets reported. The program is code-named PRISM.
The revelation that the National Security Agency has been collecting phone records from Verizon Communications of all calls within the U.S. and to sources overseas 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 terror 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.
But 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 Joshua 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.”
The furor prompted Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to issue a rare statement late Thursday night in which he argued that the disclosure “threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.”
“Discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions,” Mr. Clapper said.
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The timing of the report came as the Obama administration 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.