Intelligence officials say that years before Edward Snowden sparked a public outcry with his disclosure that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting American telephone records, some NSA executives voiced strong objections to the program. They said the program exceeded the agency's mandate to focus on foreign spying and would do little to stop terror plots.

The executives' 2009 dissent prompted the Obama administration to consider but abandon a plan to stop gathering the records.

The secret internal debate has not been previously reported. The Senate on Tuesday failed to pass a proposal by the administration that would have curbed the program and left the records in the hands of telephone companies. That's an arrangement similar to the one the government quietly rejected in 2009.