NSA Phone Record Collection Has Bipartisan Support in Congress

Why domestic phone record gathering is here to stay.

June 6, 2013, 4:55 PM

June 7, 2013— -- Most people don't know it, but government collection of Americans' phone records has become part of a new normal in the post 9/11 world.

Years ago the revelation that the Obama administration regularly sought and received legal authority to collect records on every phone call made by Verizon Wireless users might have sparked widespread consternation in Congress, but now it seems to have only produced a bipartisan effort to justify the practice as critical to national security.

"I can tell you why this program is important, that within the last few years this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States. We know that," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rodgers, R-Mich., on Thursday. "It's important. It fills in a little seam that we have, and it's used to make sure that there is not an international nexus to any terrorism event that they may believe is ongoing in the United States."

Those comments have been echoed by the highest-ranking Democrats in the Senate, and by the White House.

The growing bipartisan unanimity on the issue suggests that lawmakers, especially those with access to classified information, now accept that the tactics that began during the Bush administration and have been tweaked but largely kept in place during Obama's tenure are now an integral part of the terror fight.

"I don't think it's going to be alarming to the Hill. The Hill has been aware of these types of programs since soon after 9/11," said a former senior FBI official. "More surveillance activity with this type of threat absolutely is the new normal. I can also tell you it's necessary."

On Thursday, a report in the British paper The Guardian revealed a court order granted by a federal judge in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court allowed the National Security Agency to collect "metadata" about calls made within the U.S., and between the U.S. and foreign countries from Verizon customers. It does not let the government monitor the content of those calls.

The ability to make requests for this kind of data stems from the Patriot Act, which was first signed into law in 2001, and has been renewed under President George W. Bush and President Obama.

But the existence of a program like this had been leaked by anonymous sources in one 2006 USA Today report, but it had never been confirmed.

While the program is still considered classified information, the White House, in its own defense, all but confirmed them today.

"The information of the sort described in the article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats, as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," said White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest today.

On Capitol Hill, the voices echoing that view appear to be drowning out those who are raising questions about civil liberties violations.

So far, a handful of senators, including Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; and Rand Paul, R-Ky., have all raised concerns that the government may have overstepped its bounds.

Udall, told the Denver Post Wednesday he did everything "short of leaking classified information" over the last several years to bring attention to how the government was carrying out its domestic surveillance program.

The program has not only been detailed in classified briefings to members of House and Senate intelligence committees, but every senator was told of its existence before Wednesday's leaked documents, and still there has been little outrage in Washington about a practice that has been in place, according to lawmakers, since 2006.

It's no surprise, then, that unlike the scandals in recent weeks, which prompted bipartisan outcry and congressional investigations, this one seems unlikely to produce a similar outcome.

It appears that even the American public isn't very concerned about this kind of activity. A forthcoming Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll found that 85 percent of adults believe the government is already monitoring "communications history, such as phone calls, emails and Internet use."

"I think both sides have in a way abdicated the role of trying to constrain executive power," said Josh Foust, a former intelligence analyst to the military and a freelance national security journalist. "The Democrats have found to a degree that being tough on national security is advantageous. Republicans to a major extent believe in executive authority and having a strong assertive government to combat terrorism."

For civil libertarians, however, the relatively tranquil political reception this news has received makes it all the more troubling.

"This is precisely the kind of dragnet surveillance and tracking of American phone calls that we've been worried about for years," said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Program. "The government should disclose its understanding of what the law means, say that it believes it can track the phone calls of everyone in the country not just in the past but going forward without limiting its surveillance to terrorists and those suspected of wrongdoing."

After a classified briefing on the program with 27 senators late on Thursday, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, cast doubt on the prospect that there might be changes made to the program.

"We're always open to changes, but that doesn't mean that there will be any," she said.