The White House on Thursday acknowledged that President Obama quietly continued a Bush-era counterterrorism program that allows the nation's top spy organization to secretly collect the phone records of millions of Americans, defending the program as a "critical tool" in the fight against terrorism.
The National Security Agency has been collecting records of Verizon customers on an "ongoing, daily basis," including domestic calls involving solely Americans and without assessing whether the customer had any ties to terrorists. Administration officials insist no innocent person's privacy has been violated.
"The information acquired does not include the content of any communication or the name of any subscriber," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said aboard Air Force One. "It relates exclusively to call details, such as a telephone number or the length of a telephone call. The information ... has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats."
Late Thursday, the Washington Post also reported the NSA and FBI have been accessing central servers of leading U.S. Internet companies since 2007 to monitor conversations and the movements of individuals. White House officials declined to comment on the report.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers defended Obama's continuation of the NSA program, casting the new disclosure about Verizon's customers as "nothing new."
Verizon is prevented by federal law from even acknowledging its participation in the program. In a statement Thursday, the company said only that if it were asked to participate in such a program, "we would be required to comply."
Revelations of the domestic spying arise at a time when the White House is already fending off a trio of controversies, including the IRS' targeting of political opponents and the Justice Department's monitoring of journalists. It also could weaken Obama's stance on privacy and cyber-espionage ahead of his meeting this weekend with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom he was to discuss China's secretive, counterterrorism techniques.
Obama's embrace of the Bush-era spying program shocked and disappointed his liberal allies, particularly since it contradicts his own warnings as a senator that allowing the NSA to spy domestically could create fishing expeditions and endanger Americans' rights to privacy. The left-leaning New York Times editorial page went so far as to excoriate what it called an "administration [that] has now lost all credibility."
Obama received rare political cover from some Republicans, who argued that domestic spying helps protect the homeland. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., claimed Thursday that the spying actually thwarted a terrorist attack on America.
"We know that," he said. "It's important. It fills in a little seam that we have, and it's used to make sure that there's not an international nexus to any terrorism event that they may believe is ongoing in the United States."
Critics swiftly dismissed such reasoning.
"This is highly personal information that can reveal a person's contacts, associations and movements," said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program. "There's no excuse for collecting this type of information outside of a targeted investigation."