President Bush says the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval and that the privacy of Americans is being protected.
The White House on May 11 defended a newly revealed domestic intelligence program in which the National Security Agency has been collecting the domestic phone call records from tens of millions of Americans since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a statement to the press, President George W. Bush said that the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval.
He added that congressional leaders have been briefed on the surveillance, and he said that the privacy of Americans is being protected.
"Were not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," Bush said in his statement to the press. "Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates."
Bush then assailed the leak about the NSA data collection, saying that it hurts the governments ability to defeat the enemy.
Meanwhile, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, took the White House to task for its collection activities.
"This secret collection of phone call records of tens of millions of Americans includes ordinary Americans not suspected of any crime or any contact with al-Qaida," Leahy said.
He added that he thinks the committee has had enough of stonewalling about these activities and said he plans to ask that the committee move ahead with an investigation.
Other organizations are also questioning the NSAs activity in collecting phone call data.
"A lot of us are starting to think the NSA has started to violate the law," said Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, on May 11.
To read more about privacy advocates objections to the NSA data collection, click here.
Rotenberg told eWEEK that the process of collecting phone records of virtually all phone calls made in the United States, as revealed in USA Today on May 11, is something the National Security Agency isnt supposed to be doing.
"It appears to flatly contradict the statement by General Hayden when he said that the domestic surveillance program was highly targeted toward al-Qaida," Rotenberg said.
Gen. Michael Hayden was head of the NSA at the time the collection of phone records was said to have begun, and is now the nominee to head the CIA.
Hayden is scheduled to be questioned by Congress about domestic surveillance.
According to the USA Today story, BellSouth, AT&T, Verizon and SBC agreed to cooperate with the NSA, while Qwest declined.
AT&T and SBC have since merged and now operate under the AT&T name.
While the NSA is said to be collecting call records into a single massive database, the content of the calls is apparently not being recorded.
However, the fact that it covers nearly every American, not just those suspected of a crime or a link to terrorism, is causing great concern.
Rotenberg said that while many may worry about the information the NSA is collecting, their thoughts should go beyond that.
"I dont think worry is the right word," Rotenberg said. "Anger may be a better word."
"We all recognize that 9/11 changed things, but I dont remember anybody rescinding the Constitution," Rotenberg said.
"When government officials take it on themselves to choose which laws theyre going to follow and which theyre going to ignore, they should be held accountable."
Recently, the White House has acknowledged approving surveillance of phone calls between the United States and foreign locations to target suspected terrorist activity; however, there was no acknowledgement of approval for domestic spying by the NSA.
In response to eWEEKs request for a comment on this issue, NSA spokesperson Don Weber, in a prepared statement, said, "Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues; therefore, we have no information to provide. However, it is important to note that NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law."
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Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.