Lawmakers in both political parties called for swift action to protect civil liberties of U.S. citizens after disclosures about secret government programs that collect phone and Internet data to help thwart terrorists.
Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat and member of the Senate’s intelligence panel, said he’ll push to change the Patriot Act that allows roving wiretapping and other expanded government surveillance tools. He said he wants to better ensure individual rights aren’t trampled in the process, particularly where phone records of U.S. citizens are involved.
“The scale of it is what concerns me, and the American public doesn’t know about it,” Udall said today on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who is exploring a 2016 presidential bid, said he wants to see a class-action lawsuit challenge the government’s surveillance program of phone records at the Supreme Court. Paul spoke on “Fox News Sunday” after revelations last week that the U.S. National Security Agency is collecting data on U.S. residents’ telephone calls and foreign nationals’ Internet activity.
“We’re talking about trolling through billions of phone records,” Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on the Fox broadcast. “That is unconstitutional. It invades our privacy.”
While some U.S. lawmakers from both parties acknowledged last week that they were aware of the programs and backed them to combat terrorism, the disclosure is putting pressure on President Barack Obama to explain their scope.
Yesterday, James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, defended the programs, calling them lawful efforts that were disclosed to lawmakers and accusing the news media of being “reckless” by distorting them in reports.
The activities are “conducted under authorities widely known and discussed, and fully debated and authorized by Congress,” Clapper said in a statement yesterday. “Their purpose is to obtain foreign intelligence information, including information necessary to thwart terrorist and cyber-attacks against the United States and its allies.”
In a declassified fact sheet, Clapper provided some details about the PRISM electronic surveillance program he said was created by Congress in 2008. He described it as an internal government computer system that aids the government’s collection of data authorized by law and under court supervision.
The Guardian, a British newspaper, today reported that the source of the information provided to journalists about the surveillance programs is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American who worked for the Central Intelligence agency and as an employee of contractors doing work for the NSA.
The NSA has filed a “crimes report” to determine the source of the leaked classified information, Clapper said in an interview scheduled to air tonight on “NBC Nightly News.”
He said he is hopeful the government is able to track down whoever is responsible because it is “extremely damaging” to U.S. security, according to a transcript of the interview.
Both the PRISM online data program and a program that gathers “metadata” on phone communications such as the numbers called and duration of communications -- and not conversation content -- are coming under fire.
Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, said today it’s “simply not true” that the government is trolling through billions of phone records.
Hayden, who also led the NSA under Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican President George W. Bush, said on “Fox News Sunday” that, while Democrat Obama has expanded the surveillance program “in volume,” he and his predecessor acted within the law.
The number of records the U.S. has been able to compile has expanded over time and the NSA has more authority after a 2008 amendment to the intelligence surveillance law, according to Hayden.
“We had two presidents doing the same thing with regard to electronic surveillance,” he said. “There are no records of abuse under President Bush, under President Obama.”
The Obama administration confirmed the existence of the programs on June 6 after reports emerged of a secret court order compelling Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:US) to provide the NSA with data on all its customers’ telephone use. Citing classified documents, the Washington Post (WPO:US) and the Guardian reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the NSA had also accessed the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs.
Microsoft Corp. (MSFT:US), Yahoo! Inc., Google Inc., Facebook Inc. (FB:US), and Apple Inc. were among the technology providers involved, the newspapers reported. The companies have issued statements either denying that they had granted the government access to their servers or saying that they were unaware of the program.
The leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees today defended the programs. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate’s panel, said on ABC’s “This Week” that she is “open” to having a public hearing into U.S. surveillance.
Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House committee, said that the information being gathered is limited in nature.
“The National Security Agency does not listen to Americans’ phone calls and it is not reading Americans’ e-mails,” Rogers said on the ABC program. “None of these programs allow that.”
On the CNN program today, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said that, while there may be some overreach occurring, the system allows the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review requests to delve deeply into the content of actual phone calls and that’s enough protection. He said Americans shouldn’t forget that attempts to recruit terrorists at home and abroad continue.
“The threat is growing, not diminishing in my view,” McCain said.
Other lawmakers said action in needed to rein in the spying.
“We have gone too far,” Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland said of the government’s surveillance program on CBS’ “Face the Nation” broadcast today. “If this becomes the normal now, what’s going to be the normal tomorrow?”
Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he voted against the Patriot Act because he was “afraid of unintended consequences.”
Obama dismissed some of the coverage as “hype” on June 7, saying the telephone program only collects billing data such as the telephone numbers making and receiving calls and the duration of calls. Any monitoring of telephone conversations involving U.S. residents requires a separate court order, he said.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program’s about,” Obama said. The monitoring of Internet communication, which the Post reported includes e-mails and audio and video chats, “does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.”
The surveillance programs “make a difference to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity,” the president said.
A criminal investigation of leaks about the programs is mandatory and inevitable, given the magnitude and severity, as well as inquiries into less damaging breaches, said a U.S. official briefed on the issue, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence issues. The Department of Justice declines to comment on any specific referral, spokesman Andrew Ames said in an e-mail.
Yesterday, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters that the administration is undergoing an “assessment of the damage” caused by disclosures about the programs.
“Currently there’s a review under way, of course, to understand what potential damage may be done,” Rhodes said at a news briefing. “As it relates to any potential investigations, we’re still in the early stages of this.”
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