Congressional Republicans and Democrats demanded answers from the Bush administration Thursday about a government spy agency secretly collecting records of ordinary Americans' phone calls to build a database of every call made within the country.
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.
He vowed to do everything in his power to fight terror and "we will do so within the laws of our country."
On Capitol Hill, several lawmakers expressed incredulity about the program, with some Republicans questioning the rationale and several Democrats railing about the lack of congressional oversight.
"I don't know enough about the details except that I am willing to find out because I'm not sure why it would be necessary to keep and have that kind of information," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"We have reached a privacy crisis," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-MA, the ranking Democrat on the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee. "The N.S.A stands for Now Spying on Americans."
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News Channel: "The idea of collecting millions or thousands of phone numbers, how does that fit into following the enemy?"
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said bringing the telephone companies before the Judiciary Committee is an important step.
"We need more. We need to take this seriously, more seriously than some other matters that might come before the committee because our privacy as American citizens is at stake," Durbin said.
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."
The program does not involve listening to or taping the calls. 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.
NSA spokesman Don Weber said in an e-mailed statement that given the nature of the agency's work, it would be "irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operations issues." He added, "the NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law."
NSA is the same spy agency that conducts the controversial domestic eavesdropping program that had been acknowledged earlier by Mr. Bush. The president said last year that he authorized the NSA to listen, without warrants, to international phone calls involving Americans suspected of terrorist links.
The report came as Hayden, Mr. Bush's choice to take over leadership of the CIA, postponed some visits to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Meetings with Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were delayed at the request of the White House, said congressional aides in the two Senate offices.
The White House offered no reason for the postponement to the lawmakers. Other meetings with lawmakers were still planned.
Looked at through a political prism, the appearance of the NSA story at this time could sabotage Gen. Hayden's nomination to head the CIA since the story alleges that the data collection began under his watch at the NSA, CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante says. Hayden was head of the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005.
A White House spokesperson says, however, "I would not question whether or not there were any motivations on the behalf of the media organization that published the story."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has spoken favorably of the nomination, said the latest revelation "is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of Gen. Hayden."
The NSA wants the database of domestic call records to look for any patterns that might suggest terrorist activity, USA Today said.
Don Weber, a senior spokesman for the NSA, told the paper that the agency operates within the law, but would not comment further on its operations.
"This new information doesn't mean that the program is illegal," CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen says. "But it does, I think, make it harder for the administration to politically or legally justify it without offering more specifics about how it works and when and why. And of course the White House and the NSA have not been willing to do that."
One big telecommunications company, Qwest Communications International Inc., has refused to turn over records to the program, the newspaper said, because of privacy and legal concerns.
"I imagine we'll see some lawsuits out of this, if not against the NSA itself than surely against the telephone companies which apparently have entered into contracts with the government to provide this information even without a warrant," Cohen adds.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department has abruptly ended an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program because the NSA refused to grant its lawyers the necessary security clearance, Plante reports.
The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR, sent a fax to Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., on Wednesday saying they were closing their inquiry because without clearance their lawyers cannot examine Justice lawyers' role in the program.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the terrorist surveillance program "has been subject to extensive oversight both in the executive branch and in Congress from the time of its inception."
"The Terrorist Surveillance Program is a highly classified and exceptionally sensitive intelligence-gathering program, and only those with a special need to know are provided details about this classified program," Roehrkasse tells CBS News.