White House, senators defend massive phone surveillance program

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

The White House defended its massive phone surveillance program as a "critical tool" in fighting terrorism as criticism of the spying mounted on Capitol Hill on Thursday. The Guardian reported on Wednesday that the Obama administration used a secret court order to collect millions of Verizon telephone records from Americans in an effort to track down terrorism suspects.

Information obtained from Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders "is a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorism activities, particularly people located inside the United States," White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday.

Earnest refused to comment directly on the Guardian report, but he did attempt to counter public concerns about overreach, citing an oversight team in place to monitor the order, "welcoming" debate about civil liberties and national security measures, and stating on the record that the government did not listen in on the calls.

The order “does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls ... does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber," Earnest said. Information obtained is limited to call details such as telephone numbers and call length, Earnest said.

During a question and answer session with reporters, Earnest said members of Congress are briefed on FISA orders, and the intelligence community, legal representatives, the Department of Justice and the inspectors general have all contributed to oversight of these court-authorized actions.

The president "welcomes discussion of the tradeoff between security and civil liberties," Earnest said.

Though many senators joined the administration's defense of the program and stressed that the content of the calls are not being monitored, others called it an invasion of privacy and an overreach.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who drafted the Patriot Act that authorized phone records seizures, wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that he believes the Verizon court order "could not have been drafted more broadly." He said in a statement that the surveillance oversteps the authority granted in the Patriot Act and is "excessive and un-American."

Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican from Kentucky, wrote that the policy "is an astounding assault on the Constitution."

“This is yet another example of government overreach that forces the question, ‘What sort of state are we living in?’" Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada said in a statement.

Democratic reaction has been mixed: Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have long criticized the National Security Agency surveillance as an overreach, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence committee, said on Thursday that the program protects America and is carefully administered to protect privacy. Feinstein said the program tracks only so-called metadata, meaning who a person is calling and for how long, not the content of the call, which makes the surveillance legal. Sen. Harry Reid said everyone should "just calm down" about the program.

Some Republicans also defended the program. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Thursday morning he's "glad" the NSA is secretly collecting millions of telephone records.

“We are very much under threat," Graham said on "Fox & Friends," adding that he is a customer of Verizon, the communications company ordered to turn over the records to the government. "Radical Islam is on the rise throughout the region. Homegrown terrorism is one of my biggest concerns. It is happening in our own backyard, and I am glad that NSA is trying to find out what terrorists are up to overseas and inside the country."

Ari Fleischer, President's George W. Bush's former press secretary, wrote on Twitter that Obama "is carrying out Bush's fourth term" with drone strikes, phone surveillance and Guantanamo Bay. "Just to be clear & so silent liberals understand, I support President O's anti-terror actions. They're bi-partisan now," he wrote.

Rep. Mike Rogers, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Thursday that the program had stopped at least one serious domestic terror attack within the past year, according to the AP.

“The tools were given to the administration, and it’s the administration’s responsibility to explain how these tools are used,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters at a press conference on Thursday. ”I’ll leave it to them to explain.”

Bush was harshly criticized by the left for collecting phone records without a warrant under the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which began shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Obama administration considers its program different from Bush's because its records collections are approved by a secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to The Wall Street Journal.

—Yahoo News reporters Chris Moody and Rachel Hartman contributed to this report from Washington.