Facing intense criticism from Congress, President Bush did not confirm the work of the National Security Agency but sought to assure Americans that their privacy is being "fiercely protected."
"We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," Mr. Bush said before leaving for a commencement address at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Biloxi.
The disclosure, first reported in USA Today, could complicate Mr.Bush's bid to win confirmation of former National Security Agency director Gen. Michael Hayden as CIA director. It also reignited concerns about civil liberties and touched off questions about the legal underpinnings for the government's actions and the diligence of the Republican-controlled Congress oversight of a GOP administration.
This issue casts a much wider net than eavesdropping without warrants on suspected terrorists, which the White House calls "targeted and focused," reports CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod. This database affects as many as 200 million Americans, Axelrod reports.
The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said he was shocked by the revelation about the NSA.
"It is our government, it's not one party's government. It's America's government. Those entrusted with great power have a duty to answer to Americans what they are doing," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., and BellSouth Corp. telephone companies began turning over records of tens of millions of their customers' phone calls to the NSA program shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said USA Today, citing anonymous sources it said had direct knowledge of the arrangement.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told CBS News he would call the phone companies to appear before the panel in pursuit of what had transpired.
"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.
CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason reports that phone companies have been caught in a collision between privacy rights and national 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.
The only telecom giant to refuse the government's request was Qwest, which serves 14 million customers in the West and Northwest, Mason reports.
Mr. Bush did not confirm or deny the USA Today report. But he did say that U.S. intelligence targets terrorists and that the government does not listen to domestic telephone calls without court approval and that Congress has been briefed on intelligence programs.