Senators: NSA phone sweeping has been going on since 2007

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday said senators were informed of the administration’s sweeping surveillance practices, which they said have been going on since 2007.

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“Everyone’s been aware of it for years, every member of the Senate,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Chambliss told reporters that the program has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He said he was not aware of a single citizen filing a complaint about it.

He and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the panel’s chairwoman, also gave a defense of the program. “There have been approximately 100 plots and also arrests made since 2009 by the FBI,” Feinstein said. “I do not know to what extent metadata was used or if it was used, but I do know this, gentlemen, that terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence.”

Feinstein and Chambliss circulated a Feb. 8, 2011, letter, which both signed, inviting colleagues to read a classified report detailing the electronic surveillance authority granted by the Patriot Act and the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004.

The Senate voted in late December to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by a count of 73 to 23. The legislation extended surveillance authority for U.S. intelligence agencies by five years.

Some lawmakers on Thursday said they do not remember being briefed on the full extent of intelligence activities.

“If you’re on the intel committee, or if you’re in leadership, you might have been briefed. I’m pretty good about attending meetings; I don’t remember being briefed,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). He said he voted for the FISA reauthorization and the Patriot Act but did not intend to grant authority to collect millions of phone records at a time.

“I never voted intentionally for any bill that would grant blanket [authority] to just monitor every phone call,” he said.

Leaders in the House did not directly criticize the administration, though Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called on Obama to explain the program's use.

“There are public policy and civil liberty concerns among Americans today,” Boehner said. “I trust the president will explain to the American people why the administration considers this a critical tool in protecting our nation from the threats of a terrorist attack.” 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she believes the NSA’s actions were consistent with the Patriot Act, but called for more congressional oversight of the program.

“The administration is obeying the law but the fact is we want more oversight,” she said at a press conference.

She said she learned of the court order just before news broke about it, and that she expected a further briefing soon.

Attorney General Eric Holder faced some brief questioning on the program during his testimony Thursday in front of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, but declined to get into specifics, saying only that members of Congress had been “fully briefed” and that the panel hearing was not “an appropriate setting” to discuss the issue.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) pressed Holder on whether any phone lines in the Capitol had been monitored in an attempt to gain political “leverage” over members of Congress.

"I don't think this is an appropriate setting for me to discuss that issue," Holder said.

“The correct answer is no,” Kirk shot back.

Jonathan Easley, Russell Berman and Molly K. Hooper contributed to this story.

This story was posted at 11:44 a.m. and updated at 2:37 p.m.