WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in both political parties called for swift action to protect civil liberties of U.S. citizens after disclosures about secret government programs that collect phone and Internet data to help thwart terrorists.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Senate's intelligence panel, said he'll push to change the USA Patriot Act that allows roving wiretapping and other expanded government surveillance tools. He said he wants to better ensure individual rights aren't trampled in the process, particularly where phone records of U.S. citizens are involved.
"The scale of it is what concerns me, and the American public doesn't know about it," Udall said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is exploring a 2016 presidential bid, said he wants to see a class-action lawsuit challenge the government's surveillance program of phone records at the Supreme Court. Paul spoke on "Fox News Sunday" after revelations last week that the U.S. National Security Agency is collecting data on U.S. residents' telephone calls and foreign nationals' Internet activity.
"We're talking about trolling through billions of phone records," Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on the Fox broadcast. "That is unconstitutional. It invades our privacy."
While some U.S. lawmakers from both parties acknowledged last week that they were aware of the programs and backed them to combat terrorism, the disclosure is putting pressure on President Obama to explain their scope.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, defended the programs Saturday, calling them lawful efforts that were disclosed to lawmakers and accusing the news media of being "reckless" by distorting them in reports.
The activities are "conducted under authorities widely known and discussed, and fully debated and authorized by Congress," Clapper said in a statement Saturday. "Their purpose is to obtain foreign intelligence information, including information necessary to thwart terrorist and cyber-attacks against the United States and its allies."
In a declassified fact sheet, Clapper provided some details about the so-called PRISM electronic surveillance program he said was created by Congress in 2008. He described it as an internal government computer system that aids the government's collection of data authorized by law and under court supervision.
Both the PRISM online data program and a program that gathers "metadata" on phone communications such as the numbers called and duration of communications — and not conversation content — are coming under fire.
Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said Sunday it's "simply not true" that the government is trolling through billions of phone records.
Hayden, who also led the National Security Agency under Presidents Bill Clinton, D, and George W. Bush, R, said on "Fox News Sunday" that, while Obama has expanded the surveillance program, he and his predecessor acted within the law.
"We've had two very different presidents doing very much the same thing," he said. "There are no records of abuse under President Bush, under President Obama."
The Obama administration confirmed the existence of the programs on Thursday after reports emerged of a secret court order compelling Verizon Communications to provide the NSA with data on all its customers' telephone use. Citing classified documents, The Washington Post and the British-based Guardian newspapers reported that the FBI and the NSA had also accessed the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs.
Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and Apple were among the technology providers involved, the newspapers reported. The companies have issued statements either denying that they had granted the government access to their servers or saying that they were unaware of the program.
The leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees Sunday defended the programs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate's panel, said on ABC's "This Week" that she is "open" to having a public hearing into U.S. surveillance.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House committee, said that the information being gathered is limited in nature.
"The National Security Agency does not listen to Americans' phone calls and it is not reading Americans' emails," Rogers said on the ABC program. "None of these programs allow that."
On the CNN program Sunday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that, while there may be some overreach occurring, the system allows the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review requests to delve deeply into the content of actual phone calls and that's enough protection. He said Americans shouldn't forget that attempts to recruit terrorists at home and abroad continue.
"The threat is growing, not diminishing, in my view," McCain said.
Other lawmakers said action in needed to rein in the spying.
"We have gone too far," Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings said of the government's surveillance program on CBS' "Face the Nation" broadcast Sunday. "If this becomes the normal now, what's going to be the normal tomorrow?"
Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he voted against the Patriot Act because he was "afraid of unintended consequences."
Obama dismissed some of the coverage as "hype" on Friday, saying the telephone program collects only billing data such as the telephone numbers making and receiving calls and the duration of calls. Any monitoring of telephone conversations involving U.S. residents requires a separate court order, he said.
"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program's about," Obama said. The monitoring of Internet communication, which The Post reported includes emails and audio and video chats, "does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States."
The surveillance programs "make a difference to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity," the president said.
A criminal investigation of leaks about the programs is mandatory and inevitable, given the magnitude and severity, as well as inquiries into less damaging breaches, said a U.S. official briefed on the issue, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence issues. The Department of Justice declines to comment on any specific referral, spokesman Andrew Ames said in an email.
Saturday, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters that the administration is undergoing an "assessment of the damage" caused by disclosures about the programs.
"Currently there's a review underway, of course, to understand what potential damage may be done," Rhodes said at a news briefing. "As it relates to any potential investigations, we're still in the early stages of this."