Anger grows over NSA surveillance report

Senators promise immediate hearings after report the agency secretly obtained tens of millions of phone records.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
WASHINGTON--Capitol Hill politicians reacted angrily on Thursday to a new report about how President Bush's eavesdropping program has secretly collected records of telephone calls made by tens of millions of Americans.

In a sign that political opposition to surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency may be growing, a wide range of top Democrats took aim at the program throughout the day and called for immediate hearings to investigate the president's eavesdropping and data-mining efforts.

"We need to know what our government is doing in its activities that spy upon Americans," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. "The Republican-controlled Congress has failed in its oversight responsibilities to the American people."

Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vowed to force executives from AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth to show up at a hearing and answer questions about what data they quietly handed over to the NSA without court approval. USA Today reported on Thursday that those three companies had voluntarily opened their databases to the NSA, while Qwest refused.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, wrote his colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee asking for a parallel set of hearings--in closed session, if necessary--that would require those three chief executives to explain "the role of the phone companies in this program."

During a hastily arranged press conference at the White House this morning, Bush defended the data-mining as perfectly legal and necessary to thwart terrorism. "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," Bush said. "Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates. So far we've been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil."

It wasn't immediately clear how many other GOP members would break ranks and support more hearings. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, warned his colleagues not to rush to judgment on the latest revelations, which said that the three phone companies had divulged records of the calling histories of hundreds of millions of Americans--but not the actual content of the conversations.

One hearing in the House of Representatives, for instance, was supposed to focus on the privacy of Social Security numbers. But Democrats used it as a platform to criticize the president, while the panel's Republican members remained silent.

"We've entered a time where consumers' rights and privacy are for sale, and as it turns out, the government may be the best customer," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat. According to Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, the news represented "another telecom merger between NSA and AT&T."

"We've got a new slogan for the AT&T and NSA: Reach out and tap someone," Markey said, drawing laughter from fellow Democrats and their aides. Markey added, more seriously, that the nation has reached "a point of privacy crisis."

Other House Democrats, including Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, on Thursday introduced what they called the Lawful Intelligence and Surveillance of Terrorists in an Emergency by NSA, or the Listen Act. It specifies that covert attempts to spy on Americans or collect telephone and e-mail records must be approved by a court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Bush's difficult political position
The new revelations could be politically damaging to the Bush administration because the president has repeatedly stressed that the NSA spy program is aimed only at intercepting phone conversations and e-mail messages where one party to the conversation was outside the United States. In January, for instance, Bush assured Americans that "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

A New York Times/CBS News poll published Wednesday put Bush's approval rating at a new low of 31 percent, the third-lowest of any president in the last 50 years.

USA Today reported the three phone companies had divulged "call detail records," which are database entries that record the parties to the conversation, the length of the call, and so on. It wasn't clear whether only names or names and phone numbers were turned over to the NSA.

A CNET News.com survey published in February asked telecommunications carriers whether they "turned over information or opened up their networks to the NSA without being compelled by law." Neither Verizon nor AT&T would answer yes or no to that question.

But BellSouth did answer in the negative at the time. A BellSouth representative on Thursday said he could not explain the discrepancy, and provided News.com with a statement saying: "BellSouth does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority." The statement did not elaborate on what "proper legal authority" might be, and whether it would encompass a mere request from the White House.

Complicating the situation for the White House is the pending Senate confirmation of Michael Hayden, who was at the helm of the NSA when the surveillance program was created and was nominated by Bush last week to be the new CIA head.

Senate Democrats pledged to use those confirmation hearings as a means to get their questions answered. They will be "an opportunity to explore this and other vital issues regarding the effectiveness of our intelligence community," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. "Hayden must demonstrate a willingness to be forthcoming with the Congress and present a strategy to address the systemic problems facing our intelligence community."

CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.