Sen. Cornyn: NSA Phone Tracking a Useful Tool

Noah Adams talks to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a supporter of the National Security Agency's once-secret program to compile a database of telephone records of millions of Americans. Sen. Cornyn thinks the program is a useful tool to protect Americans from terrorism.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. On the program, more about the National Security Agency and reports of a vast computer-based telephone call tracking operation. I'm Noah Adams, sitting in for Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. We'll talk about how Americans are reacting and what the political fallout may be.

ADAMS: But first, perspective on the NSA activities from Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. I spoke with him earlier.

Senator Cornyn, welcome to our program.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Thank you very much.

ADAMS: You have said, about this NSA thing, that what's at stake here is the safety and the security of the American people. Do you have any misgivings at all about the program?

Sen. CORNYN: Not all of us know everything there is to know about this program, but that's the nature of these classified programs that are important, I believe, to gather, essentially, battlefield intelligence in order to detect and deter future terrorist attacks.

ADAMS: You know, there are not that many senators, I would think, that you'd be just a little bit peeved that you didn't know, personally, about what was going on.

Sen. CORNYN: No one likes to be surprised, but I think it's important to remember that the revelations that, of yesterday, when we learned about this effort to compile what, in essence, is an electronic telephone book without the names added is just part of a larger program designed to trace terrorist phone calls made internationally from al-Qaida operatives overseas to people here in the United States. Part of the problem, the conundrum that the intelligence community has, is the more members of Congress they tell, the more likely it is that these classified programs will be written about or discussed in the media. And not that it's the media's fault, but the fact is that the more our enemies learn about these classified programs, the more they can take steps to avoid detection. It's really a Catch-22.

ADAMS: As you know, your fellow Republican, Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says we're flying blind on this subject. He's got Constitutional concerns about privacy. He's raising the Fourth Amendment, talking about unlawful search and seizure. And he's wanting some hearings on this. Do you want to see hearings?

Sen. CORNYN: Well, I think all of those are legitimate questions to be raised, but on the other hand, this is not a criminal investigation or prosecution that's subject to the Fourth Amendment. This is really about intelligence gathering, and if there's anything we learned from 9/11, it's that we can't just investigate and prosecute these crimes once they occur. We have to try to avoid them.

ADAMS: You're on your way back, for the weekend, to your home state of Texas. What do you expect people there to be asking you about?

Sen. CORNYN: Well, I suspect more often they'll be asking me about things like the price of gasoline and immigration. This subject, as important as it is, I think it tends to be one I hear more about when I'm in Washington, D.C. than I do back home. People in my state believe very strongly that it is the government's primary responsibility to protect us and keep us secure. And they're willing to make some concessions in terms of their personal privacy in order to have that happen.

ADAMS: We have reached you at the Baltimore Washington Airport, and a lot of people around you must be making cell phone calls. They are no longer unsuspecting about what's going on, and I bet you they're wondering what's next from the government, some of them anyway.

Sen. CORNYN: We all have our imaginations piqued by shows like one of my favorites, 24, and other dramas and fictional accounts of what spies do. And you know, there's, some of those were based in a grain of truth. But I can assure you, based on everything I know, that the government is not out there spying on domestic activities by innocent people. Hopefully, Congress will remain strictly providing the oversight to make sure these are narrowly tailored programs designed to protect the American people, and that is indeed our responsibility.

ADAMS: Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, thank you for your time, sir.

Sen. CORNYN: Thanks, Noah.

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