Bush: “We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.”
Translation: “We are mining and trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.”
From Reuters. May 11th:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President George W. Bush denied on Thursday the government was “trolling through” Americans’ personal lives, despite a report that a domestic spy agency was collecting phone records of tens of millions of citizens.
Defending his administration’s espionage program, Bush said intelligence activities he had authorized were lawful and the government was not eavesdropping on domestic calls without court approval.
But Democrats and Republicans alike demanded an explanation after USA Today reported the National Security Agency was secretly amassing phone records from phone companies to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist plots.
“The privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities,” Bush told reporters at a hastily called session aimed at damage control. “We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.”
Some senators suggested, however, the disclosure could complicate confirmation of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who was nominated by Bush on Monday as director of the CIA.
USA Today said Hayden, who headed the NSA from 1999 to 2005, would have overseen the call-tracking program.
The White House said Hayden’s nomination was going “full steam ahead.”
“Everything that NSA does is lawful,” Hayden insisted after meeting Sen. Mitch McConnell (news, bio, voting record), a Republican from Kentucky, as he pressed ahead with visits to senators who will consider his appointment.
The controversy could compound Bush’s political problems as he struggles to lift public approval ratings that have fallen to new lows, putting his Republican party’s control of Congress at risk in November’s elections.
Revelation late last year that the NSA was eavesdropping inside the United States without warrants on international calls and e-mails of terrorism suspects sparked an uproar.
But the USA Today report, if confirmed, means the agency’s domestic program has been on a far wider scale.
Before leaving for Biloxi, Mississippi, a stern-faced Bush said: “Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates” to prevent future attacks. But he did not confirm or deny the USA Today story.
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Sen. Arlen Specter (news, bio, voting record), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would ask phone companies whether they were providing Americans’ records to the NSA. “We’ve got to … figure out what is going on,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.
USA Today reported the NSA database used records provided by three major phone companies, AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp.
But the newspaper said the program “does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations.”
NSA spokesman Don Weber said it would be “irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues,” but added: “It is important to note that NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law.”
Bush said last year eavesdropping only targeted communication between a person in the United States and another overseas. But USA Today said calls originating and terminating in the United States also were included in the database.
“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” the paper quoted one unnamed source as saying.
USA Today said the NSA had access to billions of domestic calls and though names and addresses were not handed over, the numbers could easily be cross-checked with other databases.
Specter said the latest disclosure “does not raise concern in my mind about General Hayden but I think it addresses a need for judicial review.”
However, Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record), a New York Democrat, said Congress should “reexamine the nomination of General Hayden who knew about these things.”
USA Today said that among major U.S. telecommunications companies, only Qwest Communications International Inc. refused to help the NSA program.
Verizon Communications said, “We don’t comment on national security matters. We do act in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers privacy.”
AT&T Inc. said, “We only assist law enforcement and government agencies charged with protecting national security in strict accordance with the law.”
BellSouth said, “To the best of our knowledge, the NSA has not requested any confidential customer information from BellSouth in the last several years.”
(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen, Tabassum Zakaria and Richard Cowan in Washingtion, Steve Holland in Biloxi, Miss., and Sinead Carew in New York)