Testifying before a previously scheduled Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Justice Department's budget, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday was met with questions regarding Wednesday's report by Britain's Guardian newspaper
that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting phone records of tens of millions of Americans who use Verizon as their landline or cell phone carrier.
Holder said Congressional legislators had been fully briefed on the intelligence-gathering operation, but that it would be inappropriate for him to say anything more in a public forum about the program.
The Obama administration has come under fire in the wake of the British paper's report that the move was authorized by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as part of ongoing federal counter-terrorism activities. The information gathered reportedly included phone numbers of both parties on a call as well as time, date, duration and location of calls.
The order from the government’s special surveillance court did not cover actually listening in on the calls or their content, according to the report.
“Whoever was running this program knows they really screwed up," said Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk as he questioned Holder. "I would just ask that you kind of seize the records and not allow the destruction of evidence that they have accidentally monitored other branches of the government."
“Well, as I said, I would be more than glad to discuss this in an appropriate setting,” the attorney general replied, expressing agreement with some of the committee members that a closed hearing should be held to discuss the issue since it involved national security concerns.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan said similar data-mining efforts have proven to be effective in the past.
"Within the last few years this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States," he said. "We know that."
But revelations about the program sparked outrage among many civil liberties advocates. Elizabeth Goitein, Co-Director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based non-partisan think tank, said clandestine collection of phone records on such a massive scale is an abuse of power.
“There is simply no way that those are all relevant or necessary to an authorized investigation, so it’s too broad," she said. "The power is already very broad in the statute and it’s being exercised in a way that is simply too broad for legitimate counter-terrorism purposes.”
Jim Harper, an information policy expert with the CATO Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank, says broad information sweeps like the one reported are not always an effective counter-terrorism tool.
“The use of all Verizon phone records in the United States to search for terrorism will fail," he said. "This program is part of an overreaction to terrorism. It won’t actually find terrorism but ultimately we will see uses that are quite detrimental to our Fourth Amendment rights and our privacy — the privacy of all of us, all law-abiding American citizens.”
Without confirming the story, a senior Obama administration official on background defended the practice as part of the provisions of the Patriot Act, a controversial law passed by Congress after the 2001 terrorist attacks designed to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools.
Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina also defended the phone records sweep during his questioning of Attorney General Eric Holder at the Senate hearing.
"I am a Verizon customer and it doesn’t bother me one bit for the National Security Agency to have my phone number, because what they are trying to do is find out what terrorist groups we know about and individuals and who the hell they are calling," he said.
Some senators said the practice has been ongoing for some time and was begun under the previous administration of President George W. Bush.
Listen to our full interview with Jim Harper, conducted by VOA's Pamela Dockins.