NSA Domestic Spying Report Roils Washington

Congress is demanding answers from the Bush administration about published allegations that the National Security Agency is secretly collecting the phone records of millions of Americans. Lawmakers and privacy advocates say they're still not being told the full story about the domestic activities of the NSA.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Now, to the latest controversy over the domestic activities of the National Security Agency. The allegation laid out in a report by USA Today, is that the NSA has been collecting millions of U.S. phone records without warrants. The White House has not confirmed the story. President Bush did appear briefly yesterday to insist U.S. spy efforts are legal, and that American's privacy rights are fully protected.

The furor is causing new problems for General Michael Hayden, the former NSA director who's been tapped as the new chief of the CIA. Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly with more on the story.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

The thrust of this new controversy is that the National Security Agency is reportedly tracking the private phone calls of tens of millions of Americans; the goal is to find patterns that might suggest terrorist activity. But the have set off an uproar in Washington, particularly among lawmakers, suspicious that they still haven't been told the full story about the last NSA controversy.

Almost exactly five months ago, The New York Times broke a story that the NSA was eavesdropping on some American citizens, in the U.S., without a warrant. The Bush administration has staunchly defended that program as targeted and small. This newly revealed one would seem to be vastly larger.

But Bryan Cunningham, a former lawyer for both the National Security Council and the CIA, says there are a number of reasons why Americans should not be worried.

Mr. BRYAN CUNNINGHAM (Former Officer, Central Intelligence Agency; Former Deputy Legal Advisor, National Security Council): First, and probably most importantly, it does intercept the content of anybody's communications. So they're not listening to what I'm saying, they're not reading my e-mails.

KELLY: The National Security Agency isn't commenting on the exact details of what it's doing, other than to say it operates within the law. A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells NPR the program does not involve listening to or recording actual conversations, and that only phone numbers are tracked, not the identities of callers or what they say.

Yesterday, President Bush gave his word: The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval.

(Soundbite of Presidential Press Conference)

President George W. Bush: The privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities. We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.

KELLY: The president also defended U.S. spy activities as legal. Jim Harper, an expert on privacy issues at the Cato Institute, says the program may be technically within legal limits.

Mr. JIM HARPER (Director of Information Policy, The Cato Institute): But it, at least, violates the principles of the Fourth Amendment, that investigations should be focused. They require either probable cause or reasonableness. And almost by definition, an investigation of all Americans' phone calls is not going to be a reasonable investigation.

KELLY: Harper says he's also uncomfortable that administration officials who've publicly defended NSA surveillance activities in recent months never mentioned this wider effort. And he wonders what else we don't yet know about.

Mr. HARPER: I have the feeling that we will learn again about some additional program that may include content of conversations. So the other shoe has yet to drop. I don't think we've learned all that there is to learn about these programs yet.

KELLY: On Capitol Hill, both Republicans and Democrats say they're to get to the bottom of the administration's surveillance efforts. They see their big chance to do so coming next week with the confirmation hearings of General Michael Hayden. Hayden ran the NSA from 1999 to 2005. He's now up for the top job at the CIA. But Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was one of several lawmakers warning these new revelations may damage Hayden's chances.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I happen to believe we're on our way to a major Constitutional confrontation on Fourth Amendment guarantees of unreasonable search and seizure. And I think this is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of General Hayden, and I think that is very regretted.

KELLY: The White House says Hayden's nomination is going full steam ahead.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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