Obama administration officials and lawmakers in charge of overseeing American intelligence efforts reacted defensively to reports of a secret federal court order that granted the U.S. government a warrant to compile information about every phone call conducted on Verizon's network.
The top Republican on the House intelligence committee said the records had "thwarted" a domestic terror plot in recent years.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the program, which could extend beyond Verizon to just about every phone call made in the United States, a "critical tool" for protecting the country.
Top senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee today defended the news that the NSA has been collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers, casting it as lawful, "nothing new" and just a regular three-month renewal of the NSA phone data request.
"It's called protecting America," chair of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said. "I understand privacy, Sen. Chambliss understands privacy, we want to protect people's private rights and that is why this is carefully done."
"This is not something I think that we don't view with extraordinary caution, we do," Feinstein continued.
"This is nothing particularly new," Sen. Chambliss, ranking Republican of the Intelligence Committee said, "this has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the FISA authority and ever member of the United States Senate has been advised of this."
But lawmakers from both parties expressed dismay at the reports. Sen. Ron Wyden, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he has wanted for years to speak openly about the program and his reservations about the massive data mining effort.
"The administration has an obligation to give a substantive and timely response to the American people and I hope this story will force a real debate about the government's domestic surveillance authorities," said Wyden in a statement. "Based on several years of oversight, I believe that its value and effectiveness remain unclear."
Wyden was joined by Tea Party Republican Rand Paul, who said, "The National Security Agency's seizure and surveillance of virtually all of Verizon's phone customers is an astounding assault on the Constitution."
Attorney General Eric Holder said that all members of Congress had been briefed on the program, a claim that aggravated at least one senator.
"Without getting into anything specific, I will say this; that with regard to -- that members of Congress have been fully briefed as these issues, matters, have been underway," said Holder during testimony on Capitol Hill.
Senator Mikulski, D-Md., said that to say members of Congress has been "fully briefed" drives her up the wall.
"Because often 'fully briefed' means a group of eight leadership; it does not necessarily mean relevant committees," Mikulski said. "So fully briefed doesn't mean we know what's going on.
When asked, Holder said he'd brief senators in a classified setting in the future.
Earnest told reporters travelling on Air Force One that the president welcomes the debate.
"The president welcomes the discussion of the trade-off," Earnest said, referring to the tension between national security and personal liberty.
Feinstein and Chambliss went further defending the secret program, arguing that the details have been "very clear" to people in the know and has "proved meritorious" because "we have gathered significant information on bad guys – but only bad guys over the years."
The program, according to The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the existence of the warrant for Verizon's data, enables the government to gather information on potentially every electronic communication in the United States - where is was made, from what contact number and how long it lasted. This so-called "metadata" does not include a recording of the actual phone call or transmission. But it can be useful in unearthing networks of people.
The senators said it is "simply what we call metadata," that is "never utilized by any governmental agency unless they go back to the FISA court and show that there is real cause as to why something within the meta data should be looked at," Chambliss said.
"It's what we call minimized," Chambliss continued, "All these numbers are basically ferreted out but if there is a number that matches a terrorist number that has been dialed by a US number is dialed from a terrorist to a US number then that might be flagged. And they may or may not seek a court order to go forward on that particular instance. But that is the only time that that information is ever used in any kind of substantive way."
The senators said this issue has been widely debated in Intelligence Committee and all senators were aware of this. To back that up Feinstein supplied two letters to reporters from the committee sent to all senators Feb. 8, 2011 and Feb. 23, 2010 prior to a similar renewal of the phone data request, asking that members come in to review the renewal in a classified session.
Feinstein declined to say whether other phone companies are giving similar data to NSA.