Updated with Durbin comments....
WASHINGTON--Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Vice-Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) on Thursday defended the Obama administration secretly gathering phone data on tens of millions of users because "I think people want the homeland kept safe to the extent we can," Feinstein said.
Congress approved the surveillance, Feinstein said in a hurriedly called press conference in the Capitol, because of the threat terrorists pose. "I know people are trying to get to us," Feinstein said.
Just as the Transportation Security Administration officials screen people at airports, the purpose of the snooping, Feinstein said, was "to ferret this out before it happens."
Feinstein and Chambliss were reacting to the revelation in the British newspaper the Guardian that a judge sitting on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court signed an order in April allowing the collection of data on calls.
The Guardian posted a copy of the four-page "top secret" court order allowing the collection of information on calls--referred to as "telephony metadata" --from a Verizon subsidiary signed in April by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Roger Vinson. The order expires on July 19. To be clear: at issue is collection of information as to a number called and length of call; the U.S. government is not eavesdropping.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) continued on Thursday his long held concerns about a program he has argued for years is too broad. The phone record collection raises "a fundamental question of personal freedom and privacy against our concerns for security."
Durbin said he has had to be "circumspect" about his views because he has been privey to classified briefings.
Durbin told reporters the revelations in the Guardian were not surprising to him. "I've been concerned about this program and what's been involved in this for some time. I've been trying to be careful in how I've expressed that concern because we are dealing with classified information."
In 2009 Durbin offered an amendment to narrow the authority for government data collection. In 2009 Durbin said, "The real reason for resisting this obvious common-sense modification of Section 215 is cloaked in secrecy. Someday the cloak will be lifted and future generations will ask whether our actions today meet the test of a democratic society - transparency, accountability and fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution. I believe our oath of office requires every member of this Committee to seek a classified briefing to truly understand this issue."
Speaking on Thursday, Feinstein said, "I understand privacy. Sen. Chambliss understands privacy. We want to protect peoples private rights and that is why this is carefully done."
Chambliss said, "we review every program in the intelligence community on a regular basis, including this program. ...Where we find abuses, we're going to take corrective action."
Analysts are looking through the compiled data--what Feinstein called "a phonebook of numbers"-- for intelligence that may reveal "credible suspicion" of a terrorist plot. Once a call pattern is established, further court orders must be obtained if probers want to pursue the leads. Chambliss said the information they are looking for is "at the other end of the call."
A senior White House administration official told the Sun-Times in a statement, "the article discusses what purports to be an order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes the production of business records.
"Orders of the FISA Court are classified. On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.
"Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.
"As we have publicly stated before, all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congress passed that act and is regularly and fully briefed on how it is used, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizes such collection.
"There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That regime has been briefed to and approved by the Court. And, activities authorized under the Act are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties."