Bush defends spy program after new disclosure

After report says millions of phone records have been given to NSA, president says privacy is "fiercely protected."

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
3 min read
President Bush on Thursday tried to quell a growing controversy over an electronic surveillance program he authorized, saying it is designed to track terrorists and not to intrude on the private telephone conversations of Americans.

Bush said Americans' privacy is "fiercely protected," but did not directly respond to an article published Thursday in USA Today that said the National Security Agency is secretly collecting the phone call records of Americans' domestic calls, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon Communications and BellSouth.

"We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," Bush said from the White House. "Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaida and their known affiliates. So far, we've been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil."

Ever since news of the surveillance program became public in December, the president and members of his administration have stressed that it was limited to intercepting phone conversations and e-mail messages where one party to the conversation was outside the United States. In January, Bush assured Americans that "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

Bush did not dispute the latest allegations and said that "the intelligence activities I authorized are lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat." He did warn that when information such as this is leaked, the government's ability to defeat terrorists is threatened.

Thursday's report could complicate the Bush administration's defense of the program and the Senate confirmation of Michael Hayden, who was at the helm of the NSA during the creation of the program and was nominated by Bush to be CIA chief last week. Senate confirmation hearings for Hayden will be overseen by Arlen Specter, the Republican head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who recently threatened to eliminate funding for the spy program, unless congressional questions about it were answered.

Citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the program, USA Today said the telephone 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. That would mean that the NSA and other government agencies would have records of the calling histories of hundreds of millions of Americans--though without access to the actual content of the conversations.

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

But BellSouth did answer in the negative at the time. A BellSouth representative did not immediately respond to follow-up questions on Thursday.

USA Today reported that Qwest Communications International was approached but that Qwest's CEO at the time, Joe Nacchio, was deeply troubled by the NSA's assertion that no court authorization was necessary. In News.com's survey, Qwest also responded with a "no" answer.

Section 222 of the Communications Act (click here for PDF) generally prohibits phone companies from divulging customer information "except as required by law." It's unclear whether an executive order qualifies as a legal requirement, and fines could in theory be substantial.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group in San Francisco, filed a class action lawsuit against AT&T in January, saying the company violated federal privacy laws. But the Bush administration said on April 28 that it will attempt to have the suit tossed out of court because it could reveal "state secrets."