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NSA phone program leaves many questions

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" discusses the politics the NSA phone data collection

MSNBC:  Tim, the revelation that the National Security Agency has been building a massive database of American’s phone calls - tens of millions of American’s phone records sure looks like it comes at a tough time with General Michael Hayden, the nominee to head the CIA, being the former head of the NSA?

Russert:  Here we go – civil liberties versus national security one more time.

Republicans I talked to Thursday thought the leak may have been provided by someone who was opposed to General Hayden, because they know, as we all do now, he will undergo very tough questioning about this program.

The first NSA program was related to foreign calls.  The Bush administration believes they won that debate in terms of convincing the American people it was necessary in the war on terror.

This is domestic calls - not eavesdropping, but gathering the data of practically every phone call made in the United States and shifting through the numbers, trying to make connections between the caller and a terrorism organization or terrorist cells.

We need to know the details.  How was this program implemented?  Who authorized it?  Under what law?  How extensive is the interpretation of the data?

Democrats and Republicans now are both asking a lot of tough questions of both General Hayden and President George W. Bush.

MSNBC:  President Bush had quick reaction to the story on Thursday.

Russert: The White House knows this could be an explosive issue.  It affects practically every American.

It was a very carefully crafted response.  There was no denial of any of the facts in the USA Today article.  I believe the administration is going to have to explain exactly what this program is and why they think it’s necessary and what is the legal justification.  Can the president convince Americans’ this is a necessary front in the war on terrorism?

MSNBC:  We’re told AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon went along with the NSA program, but Quest did not – reportedly after being told by the NSA that other government agencies like the FBI, CIA and DEA might have access to their customers.

Russert:  Quest wanted to know who authorized this program.  America has very strict laws on collecting this data and sharing it.

You know there’s another piece of this.  It’s not only telephone calls, but email traffic. And when you couple this with other data collection – when you go to a grocery store or drug store and you give them a little card for discount, they also record your purchase – put those lists together and you have a complete profile of “Joe Smith on First Street.”  These are the drugs he takes, these are the foods he buys, these are the calls he makes, these are the credit lines he has.  Pretty soon both the government and private sector companies know everything about you. 

It’s pretty eerie.  That’s why this program will have to be explained.

MSNBC:  There is a protection in the communications act that prevents phone companies releasing information on consumer calling habits, so isn’t there also a question as to whether that was violated.

Russert: There sure is.

Some of the explanations that have been given include the suggestion that consumers give the telephone company permission to release information to protect “public safety”.  Is this a sufficient legal basis? Let the debate begin.

MSNBC:  Will we hear that debate Sunday, on Meet the Press?

Russert:  We’re going to talk about this with someone who has dealt with this whole issue of civil liberty and national security, and he is also an expert on how one party can take control of congress from the other.  Newt, Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House who led the Republican Revolution in 1994, will be our guest.  He is also been spending a considerable amount of time in Iowa and New Hampshire.  I guess I know why those two states are important.

All Sunday, on Meet the Press.