WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Republicans and Democrats demanded answers from the Bush administration Thursday about a government spy agency secretly collecting records of ordinary Americans' phone calls to build a database of every call made within the country.
Facing intense criticism from Congress, President Bush did not confirm the work of the National Security Agency but sought to assure Americans that their privacy is being "fiercely protected."
"We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans," Bush said before leaving for a commencement address at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Biloxi.
The disclosure could complicate Bush's bid to win confirmation of former NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden as CIA director.
The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said he was shocked by the revelation about the NSA.
"It is our government, it's not one party's government. It's America's government. Those entrusted with great power have a duty to answer to Americans what they are doing," Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., and BellSouth Corp. telephone companies began turning over records of tens of millions of their customers' phone calls to the National Security Agency program shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said USA Today, citing anonymous sources it said had direct knowledge of the arrangement.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said he would call the phone companies to appear before the panel "to find out exactly what is going on."
The companies said Thursday that they are protecting customers' privacy but have an obligation to assist law enforcement and government agencies in ensuring the nation's security. "We prize the trust our customers place in us. If and when AT&T is asked to help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions," the company said in a statement, echoed by the others.
Bush did not confirm or deny the USA Today report. But he did say that U.S. intelligence targets terrorists and that the government does not listen to domestic telephone calls without court approval and that Congress has been briefed on intelligence programs.
He vowed to do everything in his power to fight terror and "we will do so within the laws of our country."
On Capitol Hill, several lawmakers expressed incredulity about the program, with some Republicans questioning the rationale and legal underpinning and several Democrats railing about the lack of congressional oversight.
"I don't know enough about the details except that I am willing to find out because I'm not sure why it would be necessary to keep and have that kind of information," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News Channel: "The idea of collecting millions or thousands of phone numbers, how does that fit into following the enemy?"
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said bringing the telephone companies before the Judiciary Committee is an important step.
"We need more. We need to take this seriously, more seriously than some other matters that might come before the committee because our privacy as American citizens is at stake," Durbin said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., argued that the program "is not a warrantless wiretapping of the American people. I don't think this action is nearly as troublesome as being made out here, because they are not tapping our phones."
The program does not involve listening to or taping the calls. Instead it documents who talks to whom in personal and business calls, whether local or long distance, by tracking which numbers are called, the newspaper said.
The NSA and the Office of National Intelligence Director did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
NSA is the same spy agency that conducts the controversial domestic eavesdropping program that had been acknowledged earlier by Bush. The president said last year that he authorized the NSA to listen, without warrants, to international phone calls involving Americans suspected of terrorist links.
The report came as Hayden — Bush's choice to take over leadership of the CIA — had been scheduled to visit lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday. However, the meetings with Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were postponed at the request of the White House, said congressional aides in the two Senate offices.
The White House offered no reason for the postponement to the lawmakers. Other meetings with lawmakers were still planned.
Hayden already faced criticism because of the NSA's secret domestic eavesdropping program. As head of the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005, Hayden also would have overseen the call-tracking program.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has spoken favorably of the nomination, said the latest revelation "is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of Gen. Hayden."
The NSA wants the database of domestic call records to look for any patterns that might suggest terrorist activity, USA Today said.
Don Weber, a senior spokesman for the NSA, told the paper that the agency operates within the law, but would not comment further on its operations.
One big telecommunications company, Qwest, has refused to turn over records to the program, the newspaper said, because of privacy and legal concerns.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.