The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday that there's nothing unusual about a reported program allowing the National Security Agency to obtain Verizon phone records, but other lawmakers are raising new questions.
Late Wednesday, The Guardian newspaper published a report that the NSA was, as a matter of routine, collecting phone logs of calls placed through Verizon both in the United States and overseas. Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told reporters Thursday morning that they've known about the program for years, and they largely dismissed criticism from civil libertarians.
"I read intelligence carefully, and I know that people are trying to get to us. This is the reason why we keep [the Transportation Security Administration] doing what it's doing. This is the reason why the FBI now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism," Feinstein said.
"We review every program within the intelligence community on a regular basis, including this program. That's why we took the liberty of explaining to our colleagues the substance of the program in the two 'Dear Colleagues' that we handed out, and we're going to continue to do that," Chambliss said.
Chambliss explained that the data is parsed by computers to try to find connections between suspicious phone numbers.
"Is somebody in contact with somebody that we know to be a known terrorist, and that's why it's metadata only, and it's what we call 'minimized,'" Chambliss said. "All of these numbers are basically ferreted out by computer, but if there's a number that match[es] a terrorist number that has been dialed by a U.S. number or dialed from a terrorist to a U.S. number, that may be flagged."
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was among those quick to criticize the scope of the program.
“This bulk data collection is being done under interpretations of the law that have been kept secret from the public," Merkley said in a statement. "Significant [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court opinions that determine the scope of our laws should be declassified. Can the FBI or the NSA really claim that they need data scooped up on tens of millions of Americans?”
Feinstein says the business records provisions were "widely debated" both in the Intelligence Committee and during floor debate to reauthorize the provision in prior years. She distributed copies of two "Dear Colleague" letters to senators from February 2010 and 2011 saying that materials were available for review by senators in the committee's office.
"We invite each Senator to read this classified report in our committee spaces in Room 211, Hart Senate Office Building. The Attorney General and DNI have offered to make Justice Department and Intelligence Community personnel available to meet with any Member who has questions," Chambliss wrote in 2011. "We will be pleased to make our staff available for the same purpose."