The White House on Thursday fully defended the Obama administration’s secret gathering of millions of U.S. phone records, calling the practice a “critical tool” in combating terrorism and insisting that such actions don’t compromise Americans’ civil liberties.
“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.”
Earnest added, “The president welcomes discussion of the tradeoff between security and civil liberties.”
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.
Just before the White House addressed the controversy for the first time publicly, Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the gathering of phone records had thwarted a domestic terror attack.
“Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States,” he said. “We know that. 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.”
Already on the defensive for the Justice Department monitoring reporters’ emails and the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service, the White House is facing even more charges of government overreach.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
And Earnest, the White House spokesman, said the administration had made both the House and Senate intelligence committees aware of the program, information that was then relayed to other lawmakers.
However, some of Obama’s most loyal supporters criticized the president for expanding the 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.”