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Capitol Hill Reacts to Phone Database Report

NOAH ADAMS, host:

The report from USA Today on the National Security Agency and its telephone call tracking program dominated Capitol Hill debate this morning in Washington. The topic quickly became the focus of a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting earlier today. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is the ranking Democrat on that panel. And here's a big of his reaction.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Look at this headline. NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls. Shame on us in being so far behind and being so willing to rubberstamp anything this Administration does. Republican controlled Congress refuses to ask questions, and so we have to pick up the paper to find out what is going on.

ADAMS: Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat, quoting from USA Today. NPR's David Welna joins us with more reaction from the senators. David, what if anything can the Senate Judiciary do in response to these stories about data mining, data mining they call it?

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Well, Noah, the chairman of that committee, Arlen Specter, says he intends to invite the executives from the three big phone companies that are said to be providing people's phone numbers to testify before the committee and to subpoena them if necessary. He says he's doing this because he can't get information about the NSA program from the government. Now, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales did testify before the committee on the NSA's domestic surveillance program. This is the warrantless program, in February. But his testimony did little to clarify what the alleged legal underpinnings of that program really are. And Democrats are demanding that Gonzales now be brought back before the committee and that this time, unlike last time, that he be required to testify under oath. And they also want former Attorney General John Ashcroft and his deputy, James Comey, to be subpoenaed, though Specter says he's spoken with them and he doubts they'd say much about the program, which got started under their watch.

ADAMS: Anybody you run into who is in favor of this NSA program?

WELNA: Well, there were several Republicans on the Judiciary panel this morning who defended the database collection. Arizona's John Kyl said it was just nuts, in his words, to be questioning that program at a time when terrorists are trying to kill more Americans. And Alabama's Jeff Sessions, who is a former federal prosecutor, said that this was not eavesdropping since it's only obtaining phone numbers and not phone conversations that are supposedly going to the NSA. And he said also that this is not the time for Congress to be questioning the intent of the administration, when we're at war.

ADAMS: As you know Air Force General Michael Hayden, nominated to lead the CIA, was at the NSA until April 2005. He was there during this program. How could what's going on now affect the confirmation hearings which come up a week from now before the Senate Intelligence Committee?

WELNA: Well, I think that it will probably throw a bit of a wrench in the works. There are several members of the Intelligence Committee who are also on the Judiciary Committee, and they this morning said that they now have many more questions to ask of Hayden. And they feel that until he really clears up this program, that they really can't go forward with the consideration of him to be the next CIA director. So I think that we can look forward to more lengthy hearings and many, many more questions about this program. Many senators feel that this is their one shot at really getting a full explanation if they can get one about this.

ADAMS: NPR's David Welna talking with us in Capitol Hill. Thank you, David.

WELNA: You're quite welcome, Noah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.