Bush Is Pressed Over New Report on Surveillance
By ERIC LICHTBLAU and SCOTT SHANE
Published: May 12, 2006
WASHINGTON, May 11 — Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike demanded
answers from the Bush administration on Thursday about a report that the
National Security Agency had collected records of millions of domestic phone
calls, even as President Bush assured Americans that their privacy is
"We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of
innocent Americans," Mr. Bush said before leaving for a commencement address
in Mississippi. "Our efforts are focused on links to Al Qaeda and their
The president sought to defuse a tempest on Capitol Hill over an article in
USA Today reporting that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth had turned over tens of
millions of customer phone records to the N.S.A. since the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks. But Mr. Bush's remarks appeared to do little to mollify members of
Congress, as several leading lawmakers said they wanted to hear directly
from administration officials and telecommunication executives.
The report rekindled the controversy about domestic spying.
Several lawmakers predicted the new disclosures would complicate
confirmation hearings next week for Gen. Michael V. Hayden, formerly the
head of the N.S.A., as the president's nominee to lead the Central
One senior government official, who was granted anonymity to speak publicly
about the classified program, confirmed that the N.S.A. had access to
records of most telephone calls in the United States. But the official said
the call records were used for the limited purpose of tracing regular
contacts of "known bad guys."
"To perform such traces," the official said, "you'd have to have all the
calls or most of them. But you wouldn't be interested in the vast majority
The New York Times first reported in December that the president had
authorized the N.S.A. to conduct eavesdropping without warrants.
The Times also reported in December that the agency had gained the
cooperation of American telecommunications companies to get access to
records of vast amounts of domestic and international phone calls and e-mail
The agency analyzes communications patterns, the report said, and looks for
evidence of terrorist activity at home and abroad.
The USA Today article on Thursday went further, saying that the N.S.A. had
created an enormous database of all calls made by customers of the three
phone companies in an effort to compile a log of "every call ever made"
within this country. The report said one large phone company, Qwest, had
refused to cooperate with the N.S.A. because it was uneasy about the legal
implications of handing over customer information to the government without
Some Republicans, including Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan,
chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, defended the N.S.A.'s
activities and denounced the disclosure. Mr. Hoekstra said the report
"threatens to undermine our nation's safety."
"Rather than allow our intelligence professionals to maintain a laser focus
on the terrorists, we are once again mired in a debate about what our
intelligence community may or may not be doing," he said.
But many Democrats and civil liberties advocates said they were disturbed by
the report, invoking images of Big Brother and announcing legislation aimed
at reining in the N.S.A.'s domestic operations. Fifty-two members of
Congress asked the president to name a special counsel to investigate the
N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance programs.
Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who heads the Judiciary
Committee, said the reported data-mining activities raised serious
constitutional questions. He said he planned to seek the testimony of
telephone company executives.
The House majority leader, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said he wanted more
information on the program because "I am not sure why it would be necessary
to keep and have that kind of information."
Mr. Bush did not directly confirm or deny the existence of the N.S.A.
operation but said that "as a general matter every time sensitive
intelligence is leaked it hurts our ability to defeat this enemy."
Seeking to distinguish call-tracing operations from eavesdropping, the
president said that "the government does not listen to domestic phone calls
without court approval."
The phone records include numbers called, time, date and direction of calls
and other details but not the words spoken, telecommunications experts said.
Customers' names and addresses are not included in the companies' call
records, though they could be cross-referenced to obtain personal data.
General Hayden, making rounds at the Capitol to seek support for his
confirmation as C.I.A. director, did not discuss the report but defended his
former agency. "Everything that N.S.A. does is lawful and very carefully
done," General Hayden said.
The law on data-mining activities is murky, and legal analysts were divided
Thursday on the question of whether the N.S.A.'s tracing and analysis of
huge streams of American communications data would require the agency to use
subpoenas or court warrants.
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said, "If
they don't get a court order, it's a crime." She said that while the F.B.I.
might be able to get access to phone collection databases by using an
administrative subpoena, her reading of federal law was that the N.S.A.
would be banned from doing so without court approval.
But another expert on the law of electronic surveillance, Kenneth C. Bass
III, said that if access to the call database was granted in response to a
national security letter issued by the government, "it would probably not be
illegal, but it would be very troubling."
"The concept of the N.S.A. having near-real-time access to information about
every call made in the country is chilling," said Mr. Bass, former counsel
for intelligence policy at the Justice Department. He said the phone records
program resembled Total Information Awareness, a Pentagon data-mining
program shut down by Congress in 2003 after a public outcry.
The N.S.A. refused to discuss the report, but said in a statement that it
"takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law."
AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth all issued statements saying they had followed
the law in protecting customers' privacy but would not discuss details of
"AT&T has a long history of vigorously protecting customer privacy," said
Selim Bingol, a company spokesman. "We also have an obligation to assist law
enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the
Mr. Specter said in an interview that he would press for information on the
operations of the N.S.A. program to determine its legality.
"I don't think we can really make a judgment on whether warrants would be
necessary until we know a lot more about the program," he said.
One central question is whether the N.S.A. uses its analysis of phone call
patterns to select people in the United States whose phone calls and e-mail
messages are monitored without warrants. The Times has reported that the
agency is believed to have eavesdropped on the international communications
of about 400 to 500 people at a time within the United States and of
thousands of people since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Democrats said they would use the new disclosures to push for more answers
from General Hayden at his confirmation hearing, set for May 18.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, predicted "a major
Constitutional confrontation on Fourth Amendment guarantees of unreasonable
search and seizure" and said the new disclosures presented "a growing
impediment to the confirmation of General Hayden." Some members of Congress
also reacted angrily to the news that the ethics office at the Justice
Department had been refused the security clearances necessary to conduct a
planned investigation of department lawyers who approved N.S.A.'s
Mr. Specter called the denial of clearances to the department's own
investigators "incomprehensible" and said he and other senators would ask
that the clearances be granted to employees of the department's Office of
Ken Belson contributed reporting from New York for this article.