WASHINGTON -- Several federal lawmakers representing Long Island said they were surprised at the broad sweep of secret National Security Agency seizures of telephone records and Internet data that were revealed last week, even though they have allowed the terrorist surveillance program to continue since 2001.
Democratic New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and three of Long Island's Democratic representatives said they were not aware of how many Americans are caught up in the NSA's telephone record collection, despite regularly voting over the years to continue the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) under which the NSA operates.
Only Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he had understood the extent of the NSA surveillance -- and he said he supports it.
King said President Barack Obama should make a prime time speech from the Oval Office to the American people to explain why the NSA program is needed to fight terrorism.
Nationally, members of Congress have sent mixed signals on the revelations by newspapers Thursday of two different NSA data collection programs.
In one program, the NSA for seven years has gotten a secret FISA court approval to collect records of phone calls but not the conversations, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday.
In the other, called PRISM, NSA works with Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Skype and other social media companies to capture emails, pictures, videos and other materials connected to foreign people in this country and abroad, according to The Washington Post.
Both New York senators and Democratic Reps. Tim Bishop of Southampton, Steve Israel of Huntington and Carolyn McCarthy of Mineola say they need more information before they can judge the programs.
"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.
Gillibrand said, "The report about the scope of the PRISM program raises real concerns."
The lawmakers say they believe it's time to once again reassess and debate the balance point between security and privacy, a debate President Obama said Friday he would welcome even as he defended the NSA programs under fire.
Israel said, "We must continue to have checks and balances and maintain the proper level of oversight to make sure that the system is not abused, and I welcome an open debate and review of our policies."
But Israel said, "The system worked" -- because Congress authorized the NSA programs, an independent Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved them, and they averted a terrorist plot.
McCarthy also accepts the necessity for a program that protects innocent Americans from terrorist attacks, said her spokesman, Shams Tarek.
Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said a public debate should explore how the secret NSA programs erode the privacy and rights of Americans -- and raise questions about the role of Congress in overseeing the broad collection of data.
"Lawmakers should be held responsible and accountable for something that has led to this massive intrusion on the American people," he said.