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New Furor Over NSA Phone Logs

National Security Agency secretly tracks millions of Americans' calls, a new report says. Bush and his CIA nominee defend anti-terrorism operations.

May 12, 2006|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush and his nominee to lead the CIA faced a new furor Thursday over domestic spying operations after a news report that the National Security Agency has secretly assembled the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans.

Moving to limit the political fallout, Bush held a hastily arranged news appearance at the White House in which he said the government was not "trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans." But the president did not specifically address whether the data-gathering operation exists, except to refer to "new claims about other ways we are tracking down Al Qaeda."

His remarks did little to quell the reaction on Capitol Hill, where the USA Today report prompted calls for hearings and added to existing concerns over a program in which the NSA has eavesdropped on international phone conversations and e-mails of U.S. residents.

The revelations could be damaging to the confirmation prospects of Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was director of the NSA when the reported program is said to have begun, and who was nominated by Bush on Monday to serve as the next CIA director.

"All I would want to say is that everything that NSA does is lawful and very carefully done," Hayden said Thursday as he emerged from the latest in a series of closed-door meetings with lawmakers designed to line up support for his nomination.

As part of the data-collection operation, USA Today reported, AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth have given customers' records to the NSA. The records reportedly include phone numbers and the times calls are made, but not customers' names. The names are readily available elsewhere, however.

The three companies declined to comment Thursday, saying they could not discuss their cooperation in classified programs involving national security. USA Today reported that a fourth major carrier, Denver-based Qwest, refused to participate in the program because it was concerned about the legality of turning over customers' records.

As described, the program is less intrusive than the NSA domestic eavesdropping but would affect many more people. AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth have about 200 million customers combined, and the bulk of the nation's telecommunications traffic.

The White House has acknowledged that Bush authorized the NSA to eavesdrop without a court warrant on international calls and e-mails in the U.S. involving people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda.

The record-gathering program described by USA Today does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations.

Instead, the aim is to analyze calling patterns for possible clues about the ways that terrorist networks communicate.

Some critics asked Thursday whether the two programs were linked, suggesting the NSA was combing phone logs to identify people to wiretap. NSA spokesman Don Weber declined to address the matter, saying, "It would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues."

Critics also questioned the usefulness of examining the phone records of millions of Americans for clues to Al Qaeda communications.

"Terrorist activity is so limited, and we have so little to go on, that you're not going to be able to put together a pattern you can search for," said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and a member of a committee that advises the Department of Homeland Security on privacy matters. "You can't put together an algorithm that finds it."

Harper said such a program would "threaten the civil liberties and privacy of hundreds of thousands of innocent Americans."

Bush said in his remarks Thursday that "the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval" and that "the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities."

Bush and Hayden both said that all of the NSA's activities were disclosed to "appropriate" members of Congress, referring to leaders in both chambers and members of newly created intelligence subcommittees that receive regular briefings from NSA officials.

There were no immediate indications that Hayden's nomination would be derailed. But there were signs that support for him was slipping and that confirmation hearings scheduled to begin next Thursday would be more contentious.

"I believe we are on our way to a major constitutional confrontation on 4th Amendment guarantees [against] unreasonable search and seizure," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I think this is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of Gen. Hayden."

Key Republicans also expressed concern.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he would summon telephone company executives to testify "to see if we can learn some of the underlying facts."

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