WASHINGTON – President Bush on Thursday denied that the U.S. government is operating outside the law in its intelligence gathering programs and he ignored charges in a newspaper report that the National Security Agency is tracking the calling patterns of millions of Americans.
"The privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities," Bush said from the Diplomatic Room of the White House. "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."
In Thursday editions, USA Today reported that telephone calling patterns of millions of Americans are being tracked by NSA, with the help of three of the nation's largest telephone companies.
Officials at the NSA don't have records of customers' names, street addresses and other personal information, sources familiar with the program told USA Today. But advanced data mining techniques, and the wide availability of phone numbers, means NSA officials can easily look up who owns what numbers.
The program does not involve listening to or taping the calls. Instead it documents who talks to whom in personal and business calls, whether local or long distance, by tracking phone numbers dialed, the newspaper said. The hope is that the patterns could uncover terror-planning efforts.
"Our intelligence activities strictly target Al Qaeda and their known affiliates. Al Qaeda is our enemy and we want to know their plans," Bush said. "Second, the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. Third, the intelligence activities I authorized are lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat."
AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, which collectively have 200 million customers, all agreed to hand over calling lists of its customers when the program began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Denver-based Qwest, which provides local phone service to 14 million customers in 14 states in the West and Northwest, refused to participate due to concerns of the legal implications of handing over phone numbers to the government, USA Today reported.
News of the vastness of the telephone tracking program sent shock waves across Capitol Hill.
"The idea of collecting millions or thousands of phone numbers, how does that fit in to following the enemy? I need to know the answer to that and what the legal justification would one have," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told FOX News.
"Are you telling me that tens of millions of people are involved with Al Qaeda? ... Of course not, we're just going to collect their phones for the heck of it," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy said the Bush administration, and in particular Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, is stonewalling Congress. He also decried Congress for not being more thorough in the vetting of NSA programs.
"The press is doing our job for us and we should be ashamed," he added.
Don Weber, a senior spokesman for the NSA, told FOX News that the agency operates within the law, but would not comment further on its operations.
"Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues; therefore, we have no information to provide. However, it is important to note that NSA takes it legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law," he said.
The White House would not confirm or deny the existence of the NSA data mining program described in the newspapers. Officials said Thursday that if such a program existed, it would be legal because among other things when the Patriot Act was reauthorized it included language specifically regarding the handling and treatment of business records such as "call detail records."
Senior administration officials said the number of members of Congress who have been briefed on "the totality of NSA operations" has been expanded in recent months. Without confirming the existence of the program, the officials suggested it would be disingenuous for members of the Legislature to act surprised about its existence."
The program began at a time when Air Force General Michael Hayden led the agency. Hayden was nominated by Bush on Monday to be the head of the CIA. His confirmation hearing in the Senate was scheduled for next week.
The leak about the NSA appears designed to put pressure on the nomination of Hayden, a career intelligence official with the Air Force. Hayden was supposed to visit with senators on Capitol Hill on Thursday in advance of that hearing. But those meetings were cancelled at the request of the White House, said congressional aides to Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Time magazine reporter Mike Allen told FOX News it's not news that the NSA is developing a phone number database. Rather, the interesting part is that the agency was "tapping into the backbones of these communications companies."
However, that too doesn't seem to be new information. The New York Times, in its Pulitzer Prize winning reporting, reported last December that the telecommunications firms had been cooperating with the government.
"As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the NSA has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said," reads the Times report.
He added that Senate Democrats have told him that Hayden's nomination to the CIA will still go through. The only change is that "if you didn't like the NSA program before, you're really not going to like it now."
But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., suggested at a hearing on the confirmation of Bush judicial nominee Brett Kavanaugh that that Hayden's nomination should be held up until more is known.
"His nomination shouldn't be in the way but what choice do we have?" Schumer asked.
"I think this is going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of General Hayden and I think that is very regretted," added Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Republican lawmakers at the hearing said that the rhetoric should be cooled and accusations. They also stressed that the new information does not in any way suggest the government is wiretapping numbers or eavesdropping on phone conversations.
"There is no cover-up," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. "I think we ought to lower our language and our rhetoric a little bit and be conscious of what's at stake, and what's at stake is the safety and security of the American people." The debate over the program shouldn’t "fall prey to partisan politics.
"The administration is not running over civil liberties like a rogue elephant," Cornyn added.
Hayden led the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005 before becoming deputy director of national intelligence. As NSA chief, he also was in charge of the terrorist surveillance program that the White House said aimed to track phone calls and e-mails of individuals in the United States speaking to people overseas who are suspected to have links to terror groups.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the panel, said Thursday his committee would hold a fifth hearing into the NSA's wiretap programs in which he would call on officials from the three participating telephone companies and others "to find out exactly what is going on."
Specter also said that the committee is nearing the 10 votes needed to add changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which some believe was violated by the warrantless wiretap program.
FOX News' Carl Cameron, Catherine Herridge and Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.