WASHINGTON – House and Senate Intelligence Committee panelists heard Wednesday from NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander on the National Security Agency's terrorist surveillance program.
The sessions gave all committee members details that until now had been told only to certain members of the committees and the chambers' leadership.
The briefings were held the day before the start of a confirmation hearing for President Bush's pick for the next CIA director, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden. The nominee oversaw the program as NSA chief between 1999 and 2005.
Alexander met with Senate committee members for about 45 minutes on Wednesday afternoon before the meeting broke up so senators could go vote on immigration reform amendments. He then briefed them some more before heading over to meet House committee members. He returned to wrap up the meeting with senators in the evening.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said after the first break that senators had been given "quite a bit of information," but still more needed to be discussed. "You never know what you don't know," he said of the possible amount of material that could be disclosed.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said his Wednesday session gave "new meaning to the concept known as a cram course," and he remained worried that "the country still is not seeing the necessary balance between fighting terrorism and protecting people's privacy."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said President Bush agreed to the briefing to oblige Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the Intelligence Committee chairman, who "thought it was an uncomfortable situation in which you would have had seven members fully briefed on the program as they're getting ready to do confirmation hearings and eight members not briefed.
"There was a strong sense that everybody needed to be read into the program to do what they needed, in his opinion, to do to have a full and appropriate confirmation hearing for General Hayden. And we agreed with him," Snow said.
The sessions were focusing on programs detailed in 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 conducting a terrorist surveilllance program in which it was listening without warrants to phone calls between individuals in the United States and abroad who were suspected of having links to terror groups.
Reports 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 — BellSouth and Verizon — 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. AT&T is also facing a lawsuit alleging that it illegally cooperated with the NSA by making communications on AT&T networks available to the spy agency without warrants.
Roberts wouldn't discuss specifics revealed in the news reports but told FOX News the fact that the stories were published to begin with is incredible to him, given that the information is highly classified. He said the amount of leaks presents a real challenge to the U.S. government's ability to protect the homeland.
"If you inform the American public and then it is broadcast and you have misinformation about it and those of us who know the difference can't say anything about it, it's a very troublesome thing. I'll tell you one thing, (Usama) bin Laden, (Abu Musab al-) Zarqawi and (Ayman al-) Zawahiri must be rejoicing," Roberts said of the terror leaders.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., a former FBI agent and intelligence committee member, also would not elaborate on the briefings he received but said of the phone records reports: "I can assure you there are no customer records involved. None.
"I think it was inaccurately reported and completely overblown about what is and what isn't available to the NSA," he said.
A former official familiar with NSA procedures, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that since the 1970s the agency has made sure that when its systems collect information that is not relevant to foreign intelligence investigations no person can access it or use it in an inappropriate way.
The official said any information used by the agency would have been traced back to terror suspects or their associates, not information about Americans making doctor appointments or ordering pizzas.
Hayden is expected to be questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee about the program from senators during his confirmation hearing. However, with lawmakers being given classified details of the programs ahead of that, they will be limited in what they can say publicly. After the briefings, lawmakers are expected to speak to reporters about their satisfaction with the details they were given.
Not all members of the intelligence committees had 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. But Democrats said not informing the full committees violates the 1947 National Security Act.
"The White House, for the first time, is showing signs that they are serious about oversight of this program," said West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the intelligence committee's top Democrat.
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., Rockefeller's House counterpart, said: "It's a shame that it took an endangered nomination to make this happen."
Along with the decision to brief intelligence panel members, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte on Wednesday declassified records of past briefings on NSA activities by administration officials to members of Congress.
The declassification was requested by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Attendance records for the 30 briefings show 95 total visits among the 31 lawmakers who participated.
Pelosi, D-Calif., was briefed six times — four times between October 2001 and June 2002, and twice in 2004.
One source told FOX News that Pelosi's briefings coincide with the time during which the NSA was putting together its terrorist surveillance program. The briefings she attended were on that program alone and not other NSA programs.
Several officials, however, have said the relevant members of the intelligence committees and the leadership have been briefed on "the totality of what the NSA was doing."
"Committee members understand any and everything the NSA is doing," said one official, adding that the dates show members were being briefed during the "critical start up months of the program."
FOX News' Jim Angle and Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.