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Bush defends Pentagon after new spying report

Says citizen rights safeguarded

General Michael Hayden, nominated to be the next CIA chief, said yesterday, 'Everything the NSA does is lawful.'
General Michael Hayden, nominated to be the next CIA chief, said yesterday, "Everything the NSA does is lawful." (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- President Bush defended the Pentagon's domestic spying yesterday after a report that the National Security Agency, searching for evidence of terrorist communications, has obtained records of telephone calls placed by millions of Americans since Sept. 11, 2001 -- a massive database created with the cooperation of three of four major telephone companies.

In a brief, hastily scheduled White House appearance, Bush neither confirmed nor denied the existence of such a database, reported in a front-page story yesterday in USA Today, and criticized the leaking of sensitive information to the press.

But, reading a brief statement, the president acknowledged that he approved ''intelligence activities," while insisting that ''the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities.

''We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of Americans," the president said. Any domestic surveillance, he added, is ''focused on links to Al Qaeda and their known affiliates. The intelligence activities I authorized are lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat."

According to the story, the NSA approached AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications, BellSouth Corp., and Qwest Communications, asking for help in compiling information on phone calls the agency would analyze to search for suspected terrorists. Though the Defense Department agency didn't have court permission, according to the story, three of the four companies agreed to turn over records of all phone calls from Sept. 11 onward. Qwest, the lone holdout, worried about legal liability and refused to cooperate, according to the USA Today report.

On Capitol Hill, the news stunned lawmakers from both parties. Some questioned whether the NSA database program violates the Constitution.

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, an influential Republican, vowed to get answers. Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he planned to call executives from Verizon Communications, BellSouth Corp., and AT&T Corp. before his panel ''to find out exactly what is going on."

When it comes to domestic spying, Specter said, ''We're really flying blind on the subject, and that's not a good way to approach the Fourth Amendment and the constitutional issues involving privacy."

Specter linked the new allegations to the White House's refusal to answer questions about the NSA eavesdropping on calls, without a court warrant, between the United States and overseas, involving individuals and countries suspected of terrorist ties. The New York Times revealed the top-secret program earlier this year, and lawmakers' calls for a Justice Department investigation have gone unheeded.

The news, meanwhile, means more turbulence for Air Force General Michael V. Hayden, Bush's nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. Hayden, who ran the NSA from 1999 until last year, was at the helm when the phone database program began -- and helped create the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program. Hayden will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee for a confirmation hearing next Thursday.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and a senior member of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, had suggested as recently as Tuesday that she would not oppose Hayden's confirmation. Yesterday, however, she predicted the revelations will be ''a growing impediment to the confirmation of General Hayden."

After abruptly canceling morning courtesy meetings with senators, Hayden appeared on Capitol Hill later in the day. Without specifically addressing the database, Hayden told reporters that the NSA regularly briefs Congress on its operations, follows the law, and protects Americans' privacy.

In statements released yesterday, the three phone companies declined to confirm the arrangement outlined in USA Today, but said they were operating within the law. ''We do not comment on national security matters, we act in full compliance with the law, and we are committed to safeguarding our customers' privacy," Verizon said in a statement.

BellSouth's statement said it does not provide any confidential information to the NSA or any other governmental agency ''without proper legal authority." AT&T's statement was similar: ''If and when AT&T is asked to help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions. Beyond that, we don't comment on matters of national security." Officials at Qwest could not be reached for comment.

The news report contends that the NSA has been keeping track of most telephone records, including numbers, times, and locations, of most calls made in the United States since Sept. 11, but doesn't listen in on the conversations. Using supercomputers, the agency sifts through the billions of calls, searching for patterns: if a suspected terrorist associated with a certain phone number makes repeated calls to another phone, for example, or if someone frequently makes or receives calls to a country associated with terrorism, according to the story. The NSA declined to discuss the program because it is secret and is a national security matter, said the report.

But lawmakers demanded to hear from the spy agency on how it has collected the phone data, why the database is so vast, and whether its creation was a violation of constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.

''Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with Al Qaeda?" Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the judiciary panel, asked. ''These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything."

Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and Judiciary Committee member, said: ''What's the legal justification? Who has access to [the information]? What protections are in place to prevent massive violations of privacy?"

House majority leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, also said he wants answers. ''I'm not sure why it would be necessary for us to keep and have that kind of information," he told reporters.

But other Republicans, including Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, backed the president. Frist said he has been ''fully briefed" on the matter, believes they are legal, and isn't concerned about the possibility of Senate hearings, though he would have little power to stop Specter or others from calling them.

''I strongly agree with the president of the United States that our ultimate responsibility is the safety and security of the American people," said Frist. ''Our terrorism surveillance program is legal, it works. They're programs that I have been fully briefed upon, and to take those programs off the table would put Americans across this great country at risk."

Still, some critics said the USA Today report appeared to contradict Bush and Hayden's previous statements that domestic spying since Sept. 11 has been ''highly targeted" and directed only at ''international communications."

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington public interest group, said the story indicates that Bush gave the NSA a green light to spy ''on millions of Americans without any judicial approval. I think that is a violation of federal law."

Rick Klein and Bruce Mohl of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Klein reported from Washington, and Mohl reported from Boston. Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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