WASHINGTON - Sen. Mark Udall scolded the Obama administration Thursday for a sweeping telephone surveillance operation and disagreed with fellow members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who characterized it as a routine matter.
The Colorado Democrat also urged the White House to disclose how it interprets the Patriot Act, which Congress approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to thwart future strikes.
Udall voted against the bill in 2001 and in 2011 when Congress renewed it, and on Thursday renewed his push to amend the law to strengthen privacy protections.
A story in the Britain-based Guardian newspaper that said the National Security Agency is sweeping up the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers caused an uproar on Capitol Hill.
An April 25 order by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court gives the government "unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19," the paper said.
Udall said he's long warned that such news would "shock" Americans if they knew about it, adding that the surveillance hasn't been particularly effective. He also called it a "government overreach."
"The administration must disclose to the American people what surveillance authority it believes it has," Udall said in a telephone interview. "As a member of the Senate intelligence committee for years I've been concerned that there are secret interpretations of the law that the American people deserve to know about."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., dismissed the Guardian article as old news and said on MSNBC, "There is nothing new in this program . . . this was a routine, three-month approval."
Udall had a different take.
"I have different standards how to measure routine surveillance. On this matter, we simply disagree," he said.
Given the routine nature of the renewal, it's natural to wonder how many other phone companies are subject to the same type of court order.
When asked whether the program goes beyond Verizon, Udall told 9NEWS that he "can't disclose what I hear and know" because of his service on the Senate intelligence committee.
Udall and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, another member of the intelligence panel, wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder last year to criticize what they called "secret interpretations of public laws." That makes it impossible for Americans to find out just how their government applies the Patriot Act, the critics wrote.
Not every lawmaker was as worked up as Udall and Wyden.
Feinstein and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the intelligence panel's ranking Republican, said in a statement that Congress was "briefed extensively" about the Verizon surveillance and other secret projects allowed under the Patriot Act.
The court order described in the article "does not give the government authority to listen in on anyone's telephone call, nor does it provide the government with the content of any communication or the name of any subscriber," they wrote.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sought to defuse the controversy in plainer language.
"Everyone should just calm down and understand this isn't anything that is brand new. It's been going on for some seven years. And we've tried often to try to make it better, and we'll continue to do that," he said.
The White House defended secret surveillance, calling it an important tool to combat terrorism.
Information obtained that way "allows counter-terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," a senior administration official told USA Today.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the information has been used for "important and highly sensitive intelligence collection operations" but refused to elaborate.
"The president believes that we have in place a very strong oversight regime that includes all three branches of government," Earnest said.
Contact Raju Chebium, Gannett Washington Bureau.
Contributing: David Jackson and Susan Davis, USA Today
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