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A massive government program to track billions of domestic telephone calls tumbled into the open yesterday, triggering an outcry from members of Congress and prompting President Bush to offer new assurances to the American people about the aims and scope of the surveillance effort.
USA Today reported that soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the National Security Agency persuaded Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T to allow the government to build a database from details of the calls made by millions of Americans on hard-wired phone lines and mobile telephones.The disclosure appeared to undercut promises federal officials made last year that a terrorist surveillance program authorized by Mr. Bush was limited to international communications.
Yesterday afternoon, in a hastily arranged appearance before reporters at the White House, Mr. Bush said little about the newly disclosed program, but emphasized it was important to the war on terror.
"We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to Al Qaeda and their known affiliates," Mr. Bush said."So far we've been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil."
While taking pains not to confirm the USA Today report, Mr. Bush gave credence to its assertion that the surveillance program encompasses only information about what number was called and when, and does not capture what was said.
"The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval," Mr. Bush said. "The privacy of ordinary Americans is protected in all our activities."
The new report of widespread surveillance caused an uproar at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting yesterday where senators were scheduled to discuss legislation to give explicit legal authorization for the telephone and email surveillance program made public last year.
"Shame on us," the committee's ranking Democrat, Senator Leahy of Vermont, shouted as he held up a copy of the newspaper containing the eye-catching disclosure. "It means we're far behind, and being so willing to rubber stamp anything this administration does. The Republican-controlled Congress refuses to ask questions. We have to pick up the paper to find out what is going on."
Senator Schumer also complained that the Congress had been caught flat-footed. "We know nothing. Every week a different thing comes out," he said. "The issue is not the powers the administration may need but whether they're obtaining them in the proper, constitutional way."
Senator Feinstein, a Democrat of California, warned that Mr. Bush was provoking "a constitutional confrontation."
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Specter, a Republican of Pennsylvania, was more restrained in his critique, but he betrayed considerable irritation with the administration's reticence. He said he would convene a hearing to get information about the domestic call-tracking program.
"We will be calling upon AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth, as well as others," he said. "When we can't find out from the Department of Justice or other administration officials, we're going to call on those telephone companies to provide information to try to figure out exactly what is going on."
Other Republicans on the panel said the real danger was not the surveillance program, but the fact that it was publicized on the front page of one of America's most widely read newspapers.
"This is nuts," Senator Kyl, a Republican of Arizona, said. "We're in a war and we got to collect intelligence on the enemy, and you can't tell the enemy in advance how you're going to do it, and discussing all of this stuff in public leads to that."
The new disclosure also threatened to disrupt confirmation hearings expected later this month for Mr. Bush's nominee for director of central intelligence, General Michael Hayden, who was head of the NSA when the surveillance program began. Several senators said they intend to use those hearings to demand answers about the program.
General Hayden canceled some appointments on Capitol Hill yesterday morning, but later appeared there briefly with Senator McConnell, a Republican of Kentucky. Asked about the reported domestic call-tracking effort, the general said, "All I would want to say is that everything that NSA does is lawful and very carefully done and that the appropriate members of the Congress, House and Senate, are briefed on all NSA activities, and I think I'd just leave it at that," General Hayden said.
The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Senator Roberts, a Republican of Kansas, stressed that designated members of Congress were "fully informed of all aspects of the NSA's activities."
"We have received several briefings," Mr. Roberts said in a statement that did not distinguish between the program disclosed last year and the one reported yesterday. "Calls for further oversight are unnecessary. I remain convinced that the program authorized by the president is lawful and absolutely necessary to protect this nation from future attacks."
In an interview on CNN, Mr. Roberts said Americans should not be alarmed about the government compiling lists of whom they called since the conversations themselves were not recorded. "We're not talking about content," he said.
Democrats were responsible for nearly all the outrage about the program vented on Capitol Hill yesterday. However, some conservative Republicans, including the House majority leader, Rep. John Boehner, of Ohio, also expressed concerns about the reported scope of the surveillance
An attorney with an online privacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The New York Sun that the program is illegal. "Federal law regulates strictly the government's access to call detail records," the lawyer, Kurt Opsahl, said. "It may regulate it differently from the content of communications. It nevertheless does not permit wholesale surveillance of the call details of millions of Americans suspected of no crime."
Mr. Opsahl's group has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the telephone companies, accusing them of illegally invading their customers' privacy by turning over call information to the government without express legal authority. The Justice Department has intervened in the case and appears poised to seek its dismissal on the grounds it could reveal state secrets.
The companies that aided the government issued terse statements yesterday saying they believe their conduct was lawful.
Another privacy advocate, Robert Ellis Smith, said the Bush administration's claim that the program is legal has some merit. "It's not clear that it's illegal," Mr. Smith said in an interview. He said that in the 1970s, when AT&T controlled all local and long distance calls, the company agreed not to do domestic surveillance without a court order. "Now that system has broken up, we need legislation but don't have it," Mr. Smith said.
One company that could get a marketing boost from the latest report is Qwest Communications. USA Today said Qwest rebuffed repeated requests to give up its call data and demanded legal assurances that the Justice Department would not provide. Some privacy advocates said Qwest's stance might win customers who are militant about protecting their privacy.
At least one lawmaker praised Qwest for resisting the surveillance.
"I have long been concerned about the NSA's domestic spying program and today's media reports only reinforce that concern," Senator Salazar, a Democrat of Colorado, said in a statement. "I also laud Denver-based Qwest communications for its decision not to share private information with the NSA."