Public disclosure of the federal government's effort to track terrorists through the telephone records of average citizens has reinvigorated a national debate over the balancing act between security and liberty.
A day that began Thursday with an uproar over the government trolling through Americans' phone records ended with new reports about the government traipsing through the Internet. Taken together, they seemed sure to refocus Congress and its constituents on a debate that has waned since Sept. 11, 2001 -- but never ended.
On one side, the White House, bipartisan leaders in Congress and former George W. Bush administration officials defended such snooping and note it's been going on for years. The phone tracking dates back to 2006, when USA TODAY first reported that the National Security Agency was secretly collecting phone call records of tens of millions of Americans.
"It's called protecting America," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
On the other side, civil libertarians, critics of government surveillance and many Democrats in Congress expressed outrage that such sweeping and secretive programs were being used nearly 12 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"It is beyond Orwellian," Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said of the phone surveillance. Added Roger Entner, a telecommunications analyst at Recon Analytics in Boston: "They're saying, 'Give me everything you have for everybody for everywhere.'"
The British newspaper The Guardian jump-started the debate Wednesday night by revealing a secret court order requiring Verizon to turn over information on all domestic and international calls for three months. The data collected by the National Security Agency included information about the phone numbers involved, the length of the calls and other identifying information, but not the content of the conversations.
The Washington Post and The Guardian Thursday added a new twist: that the NSA and FBI have for six years received information from the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and YouTube. That program, code-named PRISM, lets the government track people's movements and contacts through audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs, the Post said.
Late Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper decried the Postand Guardianstories, saying they "they contain numerous inaccuracies" and he emphasized that under the program's restrictions, no U.S. citizens or persons located within the USA could be intentionally targeted.
"The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible," he said "and risks important protections for the security of Americans."
The result was another headache for Obama administration officials, who appear likely to be called before Congress -- a familiar scene in light of ongoing inquiries into the Internal Revenue Service, the Justice Department snooping on reporters, the Benghazi attacks and a Pentagon sex abuse scandal. Those scandals have ensnared the country's top four Cabinet departments: State, Defense, Treasury and Justice.
Even before the day ended Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee convened a classified briefing with national security officials to discuss the phone data mining, attended by 27 senators. "Now we're going to have a real debate," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a frequent critic of domestic surveillance, said after the meeting. But that debate likely will occur behind closed doors because, as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., noted, the program remains classified.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., summed up the conflict between private knowledge and public awareness, adding that he hopes it will prompt "a very important debate about security and freedom."
In that debate, Americans appear to be more concerned these days about their privacy than their security. A Washington Post poll in April, after the Boston Marathon bombings, found 48% of Americans worried that the government would go too far in compromising constitutional rights, while 41% feared it would not go far enough to investigate terrorism. A CNN/Time survey that asked a similar question found a spread of nearly 2-to-1 in favor of protecting civil liberties.
'GEORGE BUSH'S FOURTH TERM'
What emerged as the dust settled on The Guardian's first story was the realization that over two U.S. administrations controlled by different political parties, little has changed. When it comes to counter-terrorism, said former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, this is "George Bush's fourth term."
The secret court order was granted on April 25 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a three-month period ending July 19. Data collected by the NSA included information about the phone numbers involved, the length of the calls and other identifying information, but not the content of the conversation.
USA TODAY first reported in 2006 that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by three phone companies. The stories, based on sources with direct knowledge of the program, described the operation as "the largest database ever assembled in the world."
The newspaper reported that the three companies -- Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth -- were working with the NSA. But Verizon and BellSouth denied at the time that they had contracted with the NSA to provide bulk calling records.
White House officials on Thursday were quick to defend the phone call tracking program run by the NSA -- jokingly referred to as "No Such Agency" for its top-secret operations.
Traveling on Air Force One, White House chief deputy press secretary Josh Earnest noted that Congress has signed off on the program, and "a robust legal regime" is in place to make sure it complies with the Constitution. He said the government doesn't listen into the content of any call or the name of any subscriber.
Obama and his aides reject the notion they are following in Bush's footsteps. In a recent speech on counterterrorism, Obama said, "We unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress."
But Juan Carlos Zarate, a counterterrorism official during the Bush administration, said he long predicted "continuity" between the two administrations. "As a matter of necessity, the administration uses any and all tools it can use legally," said Zarate, now a senior adviser with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
'DOESN'T BOTHER ME ONE BIT'
On Capitol Hill, news of the three-month FISA order was greeted with a collective yawn from lawmakers who get regular intelligence briefings -- but surprise from those who do not.
Feinstein said the program has been going on for years and is regularly renewed. "Terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing that we have to deter this is good intelligence," she said.
Her Republican counterpart, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said the program is 7 years old and every member of the Senate knows about it. "To my knowledge, we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information," he said -- though few citizens would have known.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the program helped thwart a "significant domestic terrorist attack" in the United States "within the last few years." He said his panel was working to declassify information on the plot so it could be discussed publicly.
Several leading Republicans strongly defended the Obama administration, even as Democrats more accustomed to being allies decried the program. "I'm a Verizon customer," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "It doesn't bother me one bit that NSA has my number."
But three senior House Judiciary Committee Democrats -- Reps. John Conyers of Michigan, Jerrold Nadler of New York and Robert Scott of Virginia -- described the surveillance effort as "overbroad" and called for an immediate congressional review.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who voted against the Patriot Act when it was first enacted in 2001 and has opposed its reauthorization, said the twin disclosures demonstrate the government has too much power to spy on Americans.
"We've got to revisit the USA Patriot Act," Sanders told USA TODAY. "We've got to work on legislation to restrict those types of activities."
And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called it "an astounding assault on the Constitution."
CIVIL LIBERTARIANS CRY FOUL
For its part, Verizon said it could not disclose the court order or the FBI's request on behalf of the NSA. But the company issued an internal memo to its employees from general counsel Randy Milch, noting that it "continually takes steps to safeguard its customers' privacy."
"Nevertheless, the law authorizes the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances, and if Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply," the memo said.
Civil libertarians blasted the program as an abuse of the Constitution.
Former vice president Al Gore tweeted: "In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"
The Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement that the FISA court order may be "the broadest surveillance order" ever issued. "It requires no level of suspicion and applies to all Verizon subscribers, anywhere in the U.S." The center, which has filed a lawsuit against the government over these issues, said "we will continue to challenge the surveillance of Americans."
Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director, said the NSA's surveillance "could hardly be any more alarming." "It provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies," he said.
The huge volume of telephone records turned over to the government could help investigators identify and deter a range of terrorist acts, including cyberattacks, analysts say.
"Once you have this big chunk of data and you have it forever ... you can do all sorts of analytics with it using other data sources," said Joseph DeMarco, former head of the cybercrime unit in the U.S. attorney's office in New York City. "A data set like this is the gift that keeps on giving."
Contributing: Jim Michaels, Richard Wolf in Washington; Roger Yu in McLean, Va.
CHRIS USHER, AP
Molly Riley, AP
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.