Huge spy effort in U.S. emerges

Posted in United States | 12-May-06 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON Big U.S. telephone companies did not deny Thursday that they had turned over the call records of tens of millions of people to the National Security Agency as part of a domestic surveillance program far broader than previously known, allowing the creation of an enormous database.

A report of the extensive data collection in USA Today drew bipartisan outrage among lawmakers, but brought a quick rebuff from President George W. Bush, who insisted that "the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected." The president denied, in an unscheduled appearance, that the government was "mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans" and insisted that his administration was simply doing its best to protect the country from terrorist attack.

USA Today said that the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program, first revealed in December, had not been strictly limited to people suspected of terrorist links, but instead involved "amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans - most of whom aren't suspected of any crime."

The newspaper attributed its report to anonymous sources with direct knowledge of the program. But Bush, while critical of the impact of the report, did not specifically deny its substance, nor did any other government official.

The big telephone companies, in carefully worded statements, did not deny cooperating with the program.

"Our customers expect, deserve and receive nothing less than our fullest commitment to their privacy," said AT&T, the largest U.S. phone-service provider. "We also have an obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare, whether it be an individual or the security interests of the entire nation."

A BellSouth spokesman said cautiously that "we have not provided any information we would need a subpoena for."

The legal position of the phone companies - they have been loath in the past to share personal information - is sure to be intensely examined.

The report is bound to complicate the confirmation of General Michael Hayden, the president's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, and at a time when Hayden appeared to be making progress in overcoming congressional opposition, linked partly to questions about the surveillance program.

Lawmakers of both parties demanded more information. Some Republicans defended the program, but others said they found the news report unsettling.

The newspaper said that the spy agency was not listening to the millions of calls, but rather analyzing patterns of numbers called in an effort to detect terrorist activity.

"I don't think this action is nearly as troublesome as being made out here," said Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama.

But Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said that while he needed to know more, "I'm not sure why it would be necessary to keep and have that kind of information."

The Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, vowed to summon the phone companies that reportedly have cooperated with the NSA - AT&T, Verizon Communications and BellSouth - to explain "exactly what is going on."

A Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, warned of a "major constitutional confrontation" over the program, and said it might create a "growing impediment" to Hayden's confirmation.

There have been reports that the NSA was engaged in data-mining - sifting electronically through enormous amounts of information - but the scope was unclear. USA Today quoted one source as saying that the NSA had amassed "the largest database ever assembled in the world."

Such telephonic oversight will be politically sensitive, making it more difficult for the administration to assert that its program was narrowly focused on people with presumed terrorist links.

Bush's unscheduled remarks on the matter seemed to signal clear administration concern. The report came in a week when the president's public approval ratings reached new lows, dragged down by the Iraq war, high gasoline prices and other issues. Bush sought to reassure Americans that the program was carefully circumscribed.

"Our intelligence activities strictly target Al Qaeda and their known affiliates," he said. "Al Qaeda is our enemy, and we want to know their plan."

Bush added, "The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval."

Asked about the program Thursday after emerging from a Capitol Hill meeting, Hayden replied: "All I would want to say is that everything the NSA does is lawful and very carefully done, and that the appropriate members of Congress, the House and Senate, are briefed on all NSA activities."

Hayden helped develop the program, created in the nervous days after the 2001 terror attacks, while heading the National Security Agency, and he has vigorously defended it as central to the fight against terrorists.

Bush again indirectly chastised the press for reporting details of the surveillance program. "Every time sensitive intelligence is leaked," he said, "it hurts our ability to defeat this enemy."

The newspaper report said that only one phone company, Qwest, had refused to cooperate with the NSA request, fearful of the legal implications.