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 ChamblissSaxby ChamblissWyden hammers CIA chief over Senate spying Cruz is a liability Inside Paul Ryan’s brain trust MORE (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 FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinDems get it wrong: 'Originalism' is mainstream, even for liberal judges Human rights leaders warn against confirming Gorsuch Feinstein sees slipping support among California voters: poll MORE (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 IsaksonJohnny IsaksonOvernight Finance: Senators spar over Wall Street at SEC pick's hearing | New CBO score for ObamaCare bill | Agency signs off on Trump DC hotel lease GOP senators offer bill to require spending cuts with debt-limit hikes Schumer to House GOP: 'Turn back before it's too late' MORE (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 BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump, GOP fumble chance to govern ObamaCare gets new lease on life Ryan picks party over country by pushing healthcare bill MORE (R-Ohio) called on Obama to explain the program's use.

“There are public policy and civil liberty concerns among Americans today,” BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump, GOP fumble chance to govern ObamaCare gets new lease on life Ryan picks party over country by pushing healthcare bill MORE 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 HolderEric H. HolderOvernight Tech: Senate moving to kill FCC's internet privacy rules | Bill Gates pushes for foreign aid | Verizon, AT&T pull Google ads | Q&A with IBM's VP for cyber threat intel Uber leadership sticking by CEO Top Dems prep for future while out of the spotlight MORE 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 KirkMark KirkObamaCare repeal bill would defund Planned Parenthood Leaked ObamaCare bill would defund Planned Parenthood GOP senator won't vote to defund Planned Parenthood MORE (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.