White House defends phone sweep amid uproar
The White House insisted Thursday it must use every tool to protect Americans against terrorism, after revelations about a vast spy agency sweep of domestic phone records sparked a political backlash.
A civil liberties group branded the program, authorized by a top secret court order, as "beyond Orwellian" but a top Republican lawmaker said it had directly thwarted a terror attack in the United States in recent years.
The program, which began under president George W. Bush's administration, was detailed in a Guardian newspaper report based on a copy of a secret court order requiring telephone provider Verizon to turn over call records.
Advocates say the data, collected on calls inside and outside the United States by the National Security Agency (NSA) can be crunched to show patterns of communication to alert spy agencies to possible planning for terror attacks.
Senior US officials, while not confirming reports in the Guardian, defended the concept of collecting millions of phone records, and argued the program, was lawful and subject to multiple checks and balances across the government.
"The top priority of the president of the United States is the national security of the United States. We need to make sure we have the tools we need to confront the threat posed by terrorists," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
"What we need to do, is balance that priority with the need to protect civil liberties," he said, adding that President Barack Obama welcomed public debate on the issue.
Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said the program was vitally important.
"I can tell you why this program is important, within the last few years this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States, we know that," Rogers said.
Officials familiar with the program said it did not "listen in" on calls or pull the names of those on the line, but simply collated phone numbers, the length of individual calls and other data.
The program "allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," said a US official.
Randy Milch, Verizon's Executive Vice President and General Counsel, said in a message to staff he was legally forbidden to comment, but that any such court order would compel the company to comply.
The revelations meant new controversy for the Obama White House as it battles claims of harsh treatment toward leakers, that it accessed phone records of the Associated Press and targeted a Fox News reporter in an intelligence probe.
An NSA phone surveillance program was first reported during the Bush administration, and formed part of sweeping anti-terror laws and a surveillance structure adopted after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
But the latest revelations are the first sign that the technique is continuing under Obama -- though laws authorizing such practices have been reauthorized under the current president.
A top secret order by a court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) issued on April 25 and obtained by the Guardian gives the US government unlimited power to collect data from a three month period ending on July 19.
It is unclear whether telephone providers other than Verizon have faced similar orders.
Civil liberties groups voiced outrage.
"It's a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
"It is beyond Orwellian."
Former vice president Al Gore, on his Twitter feed, agreed: "In (this) digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"
But Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the program was lawful and had been already briefed to Congress.
"The information goes into a database, the metadata, but cannot be accessed without what's called, and I quote, 'reasonable, articulable suspicion' that the records are relevant and related to terrorist activity," Feinstein said.
The Republican vice chairman of the committee Saxby Chambliss said the report showed nothing "particularly new."
"It is simply what we call metadata that is never utilized by any government agency unless they go back to the FISA court and show that there is real cause as to why something within the metadata should be looked at."
In 2006, USA Today reported that the NSA had "been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth."
© 2013 AFP