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Bush Defends NSA After Report That it Collected Phone Records

By Eric Lichtblau
and Scott Shane


Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike demanded answers from the Bush administration on Thursday about a report that the National Security Agency has collected records of millions of domestic phone calls, even as President Bush assured Americans that their privacy is “fiercely protected.”

“We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans,” Bush said before leaving for a commencement address in Mississippi. “Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaida and their known affiliates.”

The president sought to defuse a tempest on Capitol Hill over an article in USA Today reporting that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth have turned over tens of millions of customer phone records to the NSA since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But Bush’s remarks appeared to do little to mollify members of Congress, as several leading lawmakers said they wanted to hear directly from administration officials and telecommunication executives.

The USA Today report could not be independently confirmed, and some former intelligence officials questioned the accuracy of some details.

But neither Bush nor any other administration figure explicitly denied the account, which suggested that the NSA’s surveillance and data-mining operations in the United States go further than previously acknowledged and rekindled the controversy about domestic spying.

Several lawmakers predicted the new disclosures would complicate confirmation hearings next week for Gen. Michael V. Hayden, formerly the head of the NSA, as the president’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

The New York Times first reported in December, a week after its initial disclosure that the president had authorized the NSA to conduct eavesdropping without warrants, that the agency had gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to get access to records of vast amounts of domestic and international phone calls and e-mail messages. The agency analyzes communications patterns, the report said, and looks for evidence of terrorist activity at home and abroad.

The USA Today article on Thursday went further, saying that the NSA had created an enormous database of all calls made by customers of the three phone companies in an effort to compile a log of “every call ever made” within this country.