Obama defends scheme that spies on people's phone calls
President Barack Obama and senior congressmen have defended a secret spying programme that collects the telephone records of millions of Americans, saying it had helped to thwart a domestic terrorist plot.
White House officials said the surveillance scheme, authorised by a secret court for the past seven years, was "a critical tool in protecting the nation".
"It allows counter-terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities," an official said.
The National Security Agency (NSA) programme, which appears to harvest data on every call made by US telephone users, was exposed in a leaked order by the secret court.
Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said: "Within the last few years, this programme was used to stop a terrorist attack in the US."
Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, added: "It's called protecting America."
The disclosure of the scheme heaped more pressure on Mr Obama's administration, amid anger over its aggressive pursuit of journalists suspected of receiving leaks from government officials.
The court order, marked "top secret", directed Verizon, one of America's biggest telecommunications corporations, to hand over information on an "ongoing, daily basis" about every call made by its customers within the US and from the US to numbers overseas.
This data includes numbers dialled, duration of calls and the locations of callers, but not the contents of the calls, according to the order, obtained by the 'Guardian' newspaper.
"This has been going on for seven years," said Saxby Chambliss, a Republican senator on the intelligence committee. "It has proved meritorious because we have collected significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years."
About a billion telephone calls are handled daily by Verizon's landlines, while its mobile phone arm has almost 100 million customers. Former NSA officials said other US telecoms firms were subject to similar court orders. No officials, senators or companies commented.
Partial accounts of the scheme have emerged since 2006, when George W Bush was said to have authorised a vast domestic spying apparatus. The NSA surveillance programme was described as "unconstitutional" by the American Civil Liberties Union, which called for the scheme to be abandoned and investigated by Congress.
Al Gore said: "In the digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?" (© Daily Telegraph, London)