Senate Dems condemn phone snooping, call on White House to justify order

Democratic senators on Thursday condemned the National Security Agency’s collection of Verizon customers’ phone records and demanded the Obama administration make public its legal authority for the move. [Watch the video]

“It concerns me,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The administration, I think, owes it to the American public to comment on what authorities it thinks it has.”

Udall and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), also a member of the Intelligence Committee, are two of the most outspoken critics of the administration’s surveillance policies.

Wyden said he would soon issue a statement on the report in the British newspaper The Guardian revealing the National Security Agency has collected a broad swath of phone data to filter out calls to suspected terrorists. The sweep included telephone numbers and the times and locations of calls but not the content of conversations, according to The Guardian.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.), a liberal Democrat, condemned the intelligence operation as “an outrageous breach of Americans’ privacy.”

“I have had significant concerns about the intelligence community over-collecting information about Americans’ telephone calls, emails, and other records and that is why I voted against the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act provisions in 2011 and the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act just six months ago,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a liberal independent who caucuses with Democrats, also blasted the administration.

"To simply say in a blanket way that millions and millions of Americans should have their phone records checked by the United States government is indefensible and, to my mind, unacceptable," he said.

Some Republicans sought to link the surveillance practices to the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party groups seeking tax exemption.

“It’s not a surprise. How do you distinguish between that and what the IRS is doing? There are no surprises left,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the fiercest critics of the administration’s handling of the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, however defended the national intelligence community.

Graham said he is wholly supportive of the data mining and that the public has nothing to fear.

"I'm a Verizon customer, and I could care less that they're looking through my phone records," he said.

"An individual has nothing to worry about. You can't retain information," he added.

"If we don't do it, we're crazy," Graham said.

—Erik Wasson contributed to this report.