- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

2:55 p.m.

President Bush today defended American intelligence collection efforts as lawful and necessary to fight terrorism, but Republicans and Democrats in Congress said they will investigate a new report that the government is collecting a database of calling patterns of Americans.

“We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. My efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates,” Mr. Bush said in brief remarks at the White House.

His comments came in response to a report in USA Today this morning that the National Security Agency has a program to collect and analyze the calling patterns of most telephone customers in the United States.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, the Republican from Pennsylvania, said yesterday he will call before his committee officials from the major telephone companies involved.

While never specifically acknowledging the program exists, Mr. Bush said the United States is not listening to calls without court approval, and said Americans’ privacy is “fiercely protected” by the government. He also pointedly noted that the United States has not been successfully attacked since the September 11 attack.

The NSA program collects phone numbers and no names or other identifying information was turned over, according to USA Today.

The program involves three major telephone companies: AT&T; Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. The paper, citing anonymous sources, said the phone companies began turning over records after the September 11 terrorist attacks at the urging of the NSA.

One major telephone company, Qwest, refused to participate despite strong pressure from the NSA, the paper reported. Qwest had concerns about the program’s legality.

Mr. Specter, who has been sharply critical of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, said the new reports raise fresh and serious concerns that he doubts will be adequately explained by administration officials.

“The committee will be having an additional hearing — a fifth hearing — on the subject,” he said during a committee meeting yesterday. “We will be calling on AT&T;, Verizon and Bell South, as well as others, to see some of the underlying facts that we can’t find out from the Department of Justice or other administration officials.

Other Republicans on the panel — while not disagreeing with their chairman — cautioned that it was no time for political grandstanding and that the larger wiretapping program is imperative to the war on terror.

Democrats, meanwhile, condemned the administration and warned that the new revelations will lead to larger problems for the confirmation of Mr. Bush’s nominee for CIA director — Gen. Michael Hayden — who has been involved in the wiretapping program.

Mr. Specter noted that the telephone companies have testified before the committee at least once before in hearings that led to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which deals with the president’s authority to wiretap foreign agents without a warrant.

“We’re going to call on all those telephone companies to provide information to try to figure out exactly what is going on,” he said.

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