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Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday he never thought a secret National Security Agency terrorist surveillance program that he voted for would collect millions of records of telephone calls by Americans.
“I don’t think anyone ever envisioned 10 million families would be part of this,” said Schumer, who described himself as relatively hawkish on terrorism and law enforcement.
“Why was the collection so broad and wide? What was the link to terrorism?” he asked.
Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Democratic House members Tim Bishop of Southampton, Steve Israel of Huntington and Carolyn McCarthy of Mineola all have voted to continue the anti-terror Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) under which the NSA conducts its surveillance work.
But they said they need more information to decide whether the NSA program has become too broad in scope.
And that was before The Washington Post Thursday afternoon reported that the NSA and FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.
All the Long Island Democrats agreed the NSA surveillance program collecting phone records was legal since it was approved by a secret FISA court.
But they said they did not know about the widespread collection of telephone records of ordinary Americans’ calls at home and abroad until they read about it in newspapers yesterday.
Israel and both New York senators said they had been briefed only generally about it. Bishop said he wasn’t briefed at all.
Only Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a member of the Permanent House Select Intelligence Committee, said he knew about the breadth of the collection.
King, a backer of the program, said some people might be surprised but added, “They might be more taken back if we got blown up because we didn’t keep phone records. It’s a dangerous world.”
King said, “I know there’s been instances where it has stopped terrorist attacks.”
For the past seven years, he said, the NSA has gotten approval for the data collection every three months from the FISA court.
NSA collects the records to build a database of telephone numbers placing and receiving calls, and the time and duration of the calls, King said. The NSA does not record the conversations in the calls.
“It’s not to be used unless terrorist phone numbers are found,” he said of the database. “Then they can reach into that data, mine it to see whether or not anyone among those numbers have been dealing with a terrorist phone number.”
Israel said, “I’m generally skeptical of federal access to personal information.”
Yet the FISA court approved it and a terrorist plot was averted, he said. “So the system worked, though we should continue to allow such procedures only facing imminent threat.”
McCarthy “accepts the necessity for a program that protects innocent Americans from terrorist attacks,” an aide said.
Schumer and Gillibrand said they would seek new briefings.
"My hope is that in the coming days the White House will be able to declassify information and provide those answers directly to the American people,” Gillibrand said.