WASHINGTON — Following a report that the U.S. agency in charge of a domestic spying program is building a database of every phone call made in the country, President Bush on Thursday told the nation from the White House that all anti-terrorism efforts are within the law.
Facing new concerns in Congress, President Bush referred to the report but did not confirm or deny it and instead sought to assure Americans that their privacy is being “fiercely protected.”
“We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans,” Bush said before leaving for a commencement address at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Biloxi. “Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaida and their known affiliates."
Gen. Michael Hayden, in line to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, downplayed fears of abuse. "Everything that NSA does is lawful and very carefully done. And ... the appropriate members of the Congress, House and Senate, are briefed on all NSA activities. And I think I'll just leave it at that."
Hayden, who headed the NSA from 1999 to 2005, made his comments Thursday on Capitol Hill after a meeting with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the assistant Senate majority leader.
Hayden vowed to do everything in his power to fight terrorism, and “we will do so within the laws of our country.”
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would call phone company executives to appear before the panel “to find out exactly what is going on.”
“We’re really flying blind on the subject, and that’s not a good way to approach the Fourth Amendment and the constitutional issues involving privacy,” Specter said of domestic surveillance in general.
USA Today reports on NSA database
USA Today reported Thursday that the National Security Agency has been building up the database using records provided by three major phone companies — AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. — but that the program “does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations.”
Instead it documents who talks to whom in personal and business calls, whether local or long distance, by tracking which numbers are called, the newspaper said.
USA Today said its sources for the story were “people with direct knowledge of the arrangement,” but it did not give their names or describe their affiliation.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., argued that the program “is not a warrantless wiretapping of the American people. I don’t think this action is nearly as troublesome as being made out here, because they are not tapping our phones.”
But another Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told Fox News Channel: “The idea of collecting millions or thousands of phone numbers — how does that fit into following the enemy?”
Hayden would have overseen the call-tracking program during his tenure at NSA, USA Today reported. A White House spokeswoman said Hayden’s nomination to be CIA director was going “full steam ahead.”
Feinstein, Kerry reactions
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has spoken favorably of Hayden’s nomination, said the latest revelation “is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of Gen. Hayden.”
Added Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.: “It is long overdue for this Congress to end the days of roll over and rubber stamp and finally assert its power of advise and consent before Gen. Hayden becomes (CIA) Director Hayden.”
A key House Republican also voiced reservations. Hayden will “have a lot more explaining to do,” Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters.
Boehner said he knew nothing of the program before the revelations, adding that he is “concerned” and determined “to find out” what is going on, NBC News reported Thursday.
“I’m not sure why it would be necessary to have that information,” he said of the phone records.
'Largest database ever'
The existence of an NSA eavesdropping program launched after the Sept. 11 attacks was revealed in December.
Defending the controversial program, Bush and his administration officials have said it aims to uncover links between international terrorists and their domestic collaborators and only targets communications between a person inside the United States and a person overseas.
But USA Today reported that calls originating and terminating within the United States have not escaped the NSA’s attention.
“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” the paper quoted one source as saying. The agency’s goal is “to create a database of every call ever made” within U.S. borders, it said the source added.
The NSA has “access to records of billions of domestic calls,” USA Today said. Although customers’ names and addresses are not being handed over, “the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information,” it said.
NBC: Agency mastering data ‘in real time’
NBC News intelligence analyst Bill Arkin has compiled a list of databases and software used by the NSA and other intelligence agencies. Arkin has mined the unclassified contract data for NSA and the agencies to determine what kind of databases NSA is interested in.
Arkin reported that there are hundreds of software projects to learn how to analyze hundreds of billions of transactions.
The multibillion-dollar effort since Sept. 11 involves hundreds of contracts and as many as 50 companies, Arkin said. The contracts are mainly for overseas data mining, but with so much integration of data, the distinction is less and less easy to find, he said. Arkin noted one database contains 800 million names worldwide.
"NSA is learning how to crunch data in real time. It does them no good to have Verizon back up the truck and unload the tapes. It needs a live feed from the server. It also needs the ability to be able to crunch those numbers," he told NBC News investigative producer Robert Windrem.
‘Where does it stop?’
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sounded incredulous about the newspaper report and railed against what he called a lack of congressional oversight. He argued that the media was doing the job of Congress.
“Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al-Qaida?” Leahy asked. “These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything. ... Where does it stop?”
The Democrat, who at one point held up a copy of the newspaper, added: “Shame on us for being so far behind and being so willing to rubber-stamp anything this administration does. We ought to fold our tents.”
Phone companies respond
The phone companies said Thursday that they are protecting customers’ privacy but have an obligation to assist law enforcement and government agencies in ensuring the nation’s security.
“We prize the trust our customers place in us. If and when AT&T is asked to help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions,” the company said in a statement, echoed by the others.
Among major U.S. telecommunications companies, only Qwest Communications International Inc. has refused to help the NSA program, the paper said.
Qwest, with 14 million customers in the Western United States, was “uneasy about the legal implications of handing over customer information to the government without warrants,” USA Today said.
It said the three companies cooperating with the NSA “provide local and wireless phone service to more than 200 million customers.”
The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News’ William Arkin, Robert Windrem and Mike Viqueira contributed to this report.