Some voiced complete support and trust in the program while others condemned it as “Big Brother” tactics.
An aide to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said the senator approves of the federal intelligence community having access to the phone records of U.S. citizens.
“Sen. Isakson has confidence that U.S. intelligence officials acted within the law and through authority granted to them by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to protect the American people,” said Lauren Culbertson, a spokeswoman for Isakson.
She added that the intelligence actions are done with congressional and White House oversight.
U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Marietta), who is running for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Saxby Chambliss, also voiced his support for the program.
“When used appropriately” the gathered intelligence has exposed national security threats and stopped terrorist plots, he said.
“We must utilize every available resource in our efforts to prevent terrorist attacks and protect American lives. Of equal importance, however, is ensuring the rights and privacy of law-abiding citizens,” Gingrey said.
The leaked court order demands Verizon Wireless “on an ongoing daily basis” provide detail for calls both abroad and within the United States.
The data requested includes the time and duration of a call, and the telephone numbers involved, but “does not include the substantive content of any communication,” or the name and financial information of the Verizon customers, according to a highly classified document leaked to The Guardian from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, who served from 1995 to 2003, said while in office he took a firm stance on government surveillance and is not happy about the further encroachment by federal agencies.
“It is something that has worried me tremendously,” said Barr, who is a candidate in the congressional Republican primary for Gingrey’s seat.
Barr said the federal government is overstepping the scope of the Patriot Act, which allows for obtaining business records on a limited basis, specifically for an individual who has a connection with a terrorist group or is under investigation for national security.
“It is not intended to be used as a dragnet device” that orders phone companies to “give us everything you have on an ongoing basis,” Barr said.
Barr said it is now a known fact that the government is violating the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Citizens needs to organize to express outrage or “we will indeed reach a point where there is no privacy against government intrusion,” Barr said.
Barr said members of Congress justify the order by stating it is for the “protection” of the United States.
“Part of their oath of office is to uphold the Constitution. There is no footnote saying it can be ignored because of national security,” Barr said.
Has ‘Big Brother’ arrived?
The leaked document shows for the first time that the Obama administration is expanding large scale surveillance practices that originated under the Bush Administration.
State Sen. Barry Loudermilk, another Republican running for Gingrey’s seat, released a statement saying that “1984 has arrived, but it was 29 years late,” referring to a dystopian novel by George Orwell published in 1949 that coined the term “Big Brother.”
Loudermilk called the increase in phone monitoring “un-American and chilling.”
“I’m sure they have been monitoring everyone,” Loudermilk said.
Tricia Pridemore, another candidate for Gingrey’s seat, said the Obama administration is using federal agencies and the court system to bully American businesses.
“We should have the fundamental right to live and work and raise our families without government intrusion at every level,” said Pridemore, who lives in Marietta and previously was the executive director of Georgia’s Workforce Development office.
U.S. Rep. David Scott, a Democrat who is currently in his sixth term representing a district that includes Smyrna, did not release a statement on the scandal Thursday.
Scott’s chief of staff, Michael Andel, said the congressman is not privy to information that is available only to members of the intelligence committee, and is unclear if the information collected falls under the Patriot Act or as part of a warrant.
Andel said he is waiting for the full story instead of having Scott issue a quick statement about the “sensational news story.”
A line in the sand
State Rep. Ed Lindsey (R-Buckhead), a candidate for Gingrey’s seat, said events in Boston, Times Square and Fort Hood, Texas, have demonstrated the United States is still being targeted by terrorists.
“The fact of the matter is we live in a dangerous world,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey said surveillance activity cannot cross a certain line that separates anti-terrorism intelligence gathering from domestic criminal investigations.
“I am willing to accept it as long as it is restricted to a national security agency, does not involve the actual listening in on phone calls without a warrant, and does not get involved in looking for or investigating criminal behavior,” Lindsey said.
He said there are safeguards, such as briefings to the intelligence committees of the U.S. House of Representative and Senate.
Lindsey said there should be a position added to the intelligence community that monitors surveillance requests on behalf of the citizens.
A court appointed ombudsman would add another level of judicial oversight, Lindsey said.