A White House spokesman says a court order allowing the government to secretly collect millions of U.S. citizens' telephone records is a critical tool to fight security threats.
Josh Earnest says President Barack Obama is welcoming debate about the tradeoff between civil liberties and security but is determined to use all tools to keep the United States safe. He said the order does not allow the government to listen to calls.
Attorney General Eric Holder sidestepped questions about the issue during a Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday, but he said there is no intention to spy on members of Congress or the Supreme Court.
Disclosure of the court order was first reported by The Guardian newspaper
and confirmed by Senator Dianne Feinstein. She said collecting telephone records from millions of Americans has been going on for seven years and lawmakers are aware of it.
The practice is drawing criticism from public policy and civil liberty groups that object to the broad surveillance powers granted under U.S. laws.
Jim Harper, the Cato Institute's information policy studies director, told VOA a broad collection of phone records will fail as a counterterrorism measure.
"This program is part of an overreaction to terrorism," he said. "It won't actually effectively 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."
Listen to our full interview with Jim Harper, conducted by VOA's Pamela Dockins.
In a statement, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said "the program could hardly be more alarming." He said "innocent people" had been put under constant government surveillance.
Media reports say the court order falls under the controversial U.S. domestic counterterrorism surveillance law, the Patriot Act. It became law soon after the September 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks against the United States.
In 2011, President Obama signed into law a four-year extension of key provisions of the Patriot Act, including those allowing authorities to use roving wiretaps [electronic eavesdropping], conduct court-ordered searches of business records, and conduct surveillance of foreign nationals who may be acting alone in plotting attacks.
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore reacted on his Twitter account saying, "In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous."
Brennan Center for Justice program co-director Elizabeth Goitein told VOA the government's interpretation of the law is surprising.
"It is stunning, but I should say that it is not surprising because we have known for years that the government has a secret interpretation of the so-called business record provision of the Patriot Act," she said. "And, we have known this because senators who have access to classified information on the intelligence committees have been saying this."
The Obama administration has been under fire recently after revelations the U.S. Justice Department secretly obtained phone records from the Associated Press news agency in connection with a leak investigation.