WASHINGTON – As telephone companies deny their involvement in an alleged National Security Agency intelligence program that tracks millions of phone numbers, Bush administration officials have agreed to brief all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees on the NSA's activities.
Officials will head to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to discuss the NSA's terrorist surveillance program. The briefing for intelligence committee members is aimed at quelling concern about illegal actions and to head off objections to President Bush's nominee for CIA director.
"By briefing the full committee on this program, it is my hope that we can put an end to the politics surrounding this issue and get back to the serious business of protecting our national security," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
The White House worked out details of the briefing with Hoekstra and Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Both committee leaders have long pressed for more members of Congress to be informed about the program.
"You're always going to have these questions in regards to this particular (NSA surveillance) program .... and we're in serious danger of losing it," Roberts, R-Kan., told FOX News.
"With all the misinformation about it ... and all the leaks about it ... all the partisanship that comes with it — the best way to handle it is to brief the whole committee," he said.
The briefings follow recent news reports that some U.S. phone companies provided customer call records to the NSA, which set up a database to look for patterns that could signal terrorist activity. Last year, leaks also revealed that the NSA was listening without warrants to phone calls between individuals in the United States and abroad who were suspected of having links to terror groups.
News reports this week said three of the nation's largest telecommunications firms, BellSouth, Verizon and AT&T, all cooperated with the government in handing over phone records for more than 200 million customers combined.
But two companies listed in an article printed in USA Today have denied their involvement in the program. All three companies are being sued for $200 billion by consumers who say they have had their privacy invaded.
"As a result of media reports that BellSouth provided massive amounts of customer calling information under a contract with the NSA, the company conducted an internal review to determine the facts. Based on our review to date, we have confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA," according to a statement released by BellSouth.
Verizon Communications, another company listed in the story, quickly followed with its denial that it was asked by the agency to provide customer phone records or call data.
"Contrary to the media reports, Verizon was not asked by NSA to provide, nor did Verizon provide, customer phone records," the New York-based phone company said in an e-mailed statement.
On Tuesday, President Bush defended the NSA's actions, saying they are essential tools against the War on Terror.
"I've been very clear about the principles and guidelines of any program that has been designed to protect the American people," Bush said in a White House news conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard. "I've also been clear about the fact that we do not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval and that this government will continue to guard the privacy of the American people."
Asked afterward whether the president's remarks amounted to a confirmation of the program, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the president did not confirm or deny the program's existence.
"I am not going to stand up here and presume to declassify any kind of program. That is a decision the president has to make. I can't confirm or deny it. The president was not confirming or denying," Snow said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wouldn’t comment on the White House’s decision to brief lawmakers, but said gathering intelligence allows the U.S. government to stay ahead of future terror attacks.
“The critical element in defending this country against terrorism is intelligence. As the president said today, it’s a matter of connecting the dots, and that means we first have to collect the dots. The programs that the government engages in, in compliance with the law, are all designed to give us the kind of information we need to essentially give us early warning of terrorist activity,” Chertoff told FOX News.
Not all members of the intelligence committees have been briefed on the program’s details and other workings of the agency because of concerns by the White House that information would be leaked from a larger group. Until now, only a smaller subcommittee had been privy to all the details.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the president's assurances the program is legal is not enough to satisfy Americans.
"When you put this on the president saying, 'Trust me,' we need a lot more than that, based on the fact that the American people have lost a lot of confidence in the president's truth and veracity," Reid said.
The briefing comes ahead of confirmation hearings for Bush's pick to replace Porter Goss, who resigned as CIA director a week and a half ago. Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, the president's nominee for the job, oversaw the program as NSA chief between 1999 and 2005.
Hayden is expected to be questioned about the program from senators during his confirmation hearing, now scheduled for Thursday. Officials want to avoid challenges to his confirmation.
Roberts acknowledged that the Hayden confirmation hearing is part of the reason the White House agreed to brief the entire intelligence committees, but he said he has pushed the White House to include all committee members for some time.
"This issue will be central to the committee's deliberations on General Hayden's nomination and there was no way we could fulfill our collective constitutional responsibilities without that knowledge," he said in a statement.
FOX News' Brian Wilson contributed to this report.