Senate Panel Debates NSA Domestic Phone Taps Reports that the National Security Agency has compiled a database of telephone numbers with the help of U.S. phone companies leads the Senate Judiciary Committee to table its agenda for an immediate debate over the allegations. Lawmakers decried what they described as preparations for the surveillance of domestic phone calls.
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Senate Panel Debates NSA Domestic Phone Taps

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Senate Panel Debates NSA Domestic Phone Taps

Senate Panel Debates NSA Domestic Phone Taps

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DAVID WELNA: I'm David Welna, at the Capitol.

By chance, the Senate Judiciary Committee had a scheduled meeting today just hours after the story broke on the NSA's domestic phone records data. This panel had already held four largely frustrating hearings on the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping on communications between the U.S. and foreign points. The panel's top Democrat, Vermont's Patrick Leahy, arrived at the hearing waving the latest edition of USA Today, which he called evidence of stonewalling by the Bush administration and a black eye for Congress.

PATRICK LEAHY: For shame on us, in being so far behind and being so willing to rubberstamp anything this administration does. The Republican-controlled Congress refuses to ask questions and so we have to pick up the paper to find out what is going on. We ought to fold our tents and steal away.

WELNA: Another Democrat, Massachusetts's Edward Kennedy, said it's fine if the president wants to work with Congress to have the powers he needs to intercept phone calls made by terrorists.

EDWARD KENNEDY: But what we're talking about today are ordinary citizens. Ordinary citizens, no wrongdoing, no suspicion of wrongdoing, that are being targeted. And all of this is being done outside of the purview of the courts. So there is no oversight whatsoever.

WELNA: The committee's Republican chair, Arlen Specter, responded, saying he was determined to get to the bottom of the phone data collection. He said he plans to summon officials from the phone companies that reportedly shared their data with the NSA, AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.

ARLEN SPECTER: The first move by the committee will be to ask the companies to come in. My expectation is that they will respond to an invitation, but if they do not, I'm prepared to consider subpoenas.

WELNA: But Specter did not bow to request from committee Democrats to subpoena former Attorney General John Ashcroft and his deputy, James Comey, who were in office when the phone data collection began. And Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin said current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should be required to testify before the panel again, this time under oath, about the NSA's warrantless surveillance, which Gonzales told the panel three months ago was narrowly tailored.

DICK DURBIN: Narrowly tailored? The largest database ever assembled in the world? A database of every telephone call made by every person in this room and everyone witnessing this committee hearing? Narrowly tailored?

WELNA: President Bush's allies on the committee sprang to his defense. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions said it was phone numbers, not actual phone conversations, that were being compiled.

JEFF SESSIONS: It's not a warrantless wiretapping of the American people. Let's talk about this in a rational way. We're in a war with terrorism. There are people out there that want to kill us, and I don't think this action is nearly as troublesome as being made out here.

WELNA: And Arizona Republican Jon Kyl suggested his colleagues may even be helping undermine the nation's defenses by discussing the phone records program.

JON KYL: This is nuts. We are in a war, and we've got to collect intelligence on the enemy. And you can't tell the enemy in advance how you're going to do it.

WELNA: Today's revelation of the NSA's phone records database may also further complicate the Senate's confirmation of Gen. Michael Hayden to head the CIA. After canceling meetings he had scheduled here this morning, Hayden did meet this afternoon with Majority Whip Mitch McConnell. He was asked about the USA Today report as he emerged from that meeting.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: All I would want to say is that everything that NSA does is lawful and very carefully done and that the appropriate members of the Congress, House and Senate are briefed on all NSA activities, and I think I'd just leave it at that.

WELNA: It's not likely those will be Hayden's last words on the matter. Majority Leader Frist said today he's still looking into whether hearings will be held on the phone records program.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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