- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

President Bush yesterday said U.S. intelligence collection efforts are lawful and necessary to fight terrorism, as Capitol Hill lawmakers called for hearings into a report that the government has secretly obtained the phone-call records of millions 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, responding to a USA Today report of a National Security Agency program.

The paper yesterday said that the NSA is collecting and analyzing the calling patterns of most telephone customers in the United States to try and track down terrorists, but does not collect names or other identifying information.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said yesterday morning that he will call before his committee officials from the major telephone companies that are participating in the NSA effort.

Democrats blasted the Republican Congress for not more aggressively monitoring the administration’s anti-terrorism activities.

“Shame on us for being so willing to rubber-stamp anything this administration does,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. “We ought to fold our tents and steal away.”

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

With the story boiling up yesterday morning, Mr. Bush responded personally, speaking for two minutes before leaving for a commencement address at a community college in Mississippi. He ignored a question about the nature of the program called to him by a reporter as he left the podium in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room.

The president never acknowledged the existence of the project, referring only to “new claims about other ways we are tracking down al Qaeda to prevent attacks on America.”

But he said flatly that the United States is not listening to domestic 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.

Mr. Bush is already facing criticism over the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, which he says monitors U.S.-to-international calls of suspected terrorist affiliates.

Some House Democrats introduced a bill to require that every wiretap or attempt to gain records of Americans must be through a court-obtained warrant.

In the Senate, Mr. Specter, who has been sharply critical of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, said the 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 BellSouth, 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.”

They also warned that the new revelations will lead to larger problems for the confirmation of Mr. Bush’s nominee for CIA director — Gen. Michael V. Hayden — who as NSA director was deeply involved in the wiretapping program.

“I believe we are on our way to a major constitutional confrontation on Fourth Amendment guarantees of unreasonable search and seizure,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. “I think this is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of General Hayden.”

But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she doesn’t see it derailing the nomination.

“The feedback has been positive, and we’re full steam ahead on his nomination,” she said.

Most Republicans on the Judiciary Committee — 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.

“This is nuts,” Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said of Democratic complaints about the program. “We are in war. We have got to collect intelligence on the enemy, and you can’t tell the enemy how you’re going to do it.”

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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