Senators on Thursday confirmed that the government for years has been collecting the phone records of millions of Americans, casting the new disclosure about the government's seizing of Verizon customers’ data as "nothing new."
“As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said. “This renewal is carried out by the [Congress] under the business records section of the Patriot Act. Therefore it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress.”
Added Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., “Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this. To my knowledge there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint. It has proved meritorious because we have collected significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.”
Under a secret court order, the National Security Agency collected the phone records of millions of Verizon customers, The Guardian first reported Wednesday. The spy agency was authorized to collect that data through July 19, according to the report.
The court order allows the NSA to receive information from Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” — both within the United States and between American customers and those in other countries.
The White House remained mum about the revelation on Thursday but defended the practice.
“On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls,” an administration official said.
The administration official called the tactic a “critical tool” in tracking and preventing terrorist threats to the United States.
Some on Capitol Hill, however, slammed the disclosure as another example of big government run amok.
“The National Security Agency’s seizure and surveillance of virtually all of Verizon’s phone customers is an astounding assault on the Constitution,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said. “After revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political dissidents and the Department of Justice seized reporters’ phone records, it would appear that this administration has now sunk to a new low.”
As details about the widespread phone monitoring emerged, Attorney General Eric Holder was on Capitol Hill pledging not to prosecute journalists for doing their jobs.
However, some of Obama's most loyal supporters criticized the president for expanding the very same Bush-era counterterrorism techniques he decried as a presidential candidate.
“The United States should not be accumulating phone records on tens of millions of innocent Americans,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said. “That is not what democracy is about. That is not what freedom is about.”