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WASHINGTON — Tri-state U.S. senators on Thursday reacted with outrage to reports that the National Security Agency confiscates millions of Verizon phone records each day. But through their own votes, those same senators helped the NSA obtain the records.
Several lawmakers appeared to be caught off-guard at the connection, with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., telling reporters he "never voted intentionally" for any bill that would allow the government to review "every phone call of every citizen of the country."
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he thought Congress provided authority to the Obama administration to spy on Americans "in a very narrow way." He demanded an explanation about "how this information is used" and why broad collection is necessary.
In 2011, Corker and Isakson joined 70 colleagues in voting to renew the law the Obama administration used to compel Verizon to release the records.
The British newspaper the Guardian on Wednesday published a court order that requires a subsidiary of Verizon Communications on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all American telephone calls in its network, both domestic and international. A similar program existed under President George W. Bush, but this is the first time documents have shown President Barack Obama continuing the practice on a large scale.
"I don't know how many of y'all use Verizon," Corker told reporters. "I know that I do, [and] the fact that all of our calls are being gathered in that way -- ordinary citizens throughout America -- to me, is troubling."
But the Obama administration, while never explicitly confirming the Guardian's report, characterized its actions as perfectly legal. At a press briefing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest pointed to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a post-9/11 law that allows the government to seize "any tangible thing" -- including business and cell phone records -- that could be relevant to a terrorist threat.
Earnest would not say if the Verizon seizures are part of a specific investigation.
"All I can tell you is that these authorities have been in place for quite some time, prior to this president taking office," he said.
Congress voted in May 2011 to extend Section 215 and other Patriot Act provisions until 2015. Corker, Isakson, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and both Alabama senators supported the renewal. The only Southern senator to oppose the extension was U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Last December, the Senate renewed the Foreign Services Intelligence Act, which codified the special court the NSA uses to obtain the phone records. Paul again was the only Southern senator to oppose the act's reauthorization.
"Is 1984 now?" Paul said on Twitter, referring to the George Orwell novel. "Big Brother is watching."
In the House, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, the Memphis Democrat, and a few local Republicans voted against renewing the Patriot Act in May 2011. They include U.S. Reps. Phil Roe, of Johnson City; Jimmy Duncan, of Knoxville; and Tom Graves, of Ranger, Ga.
The five other House Republicans from Tennessee, including U.S. Reps. Scott DesJarlais and Chuck Fleischmann, supported the extension. Unavailable for an interview Thursday, Fleischmann in 2011 said he voted to renew the act to protect Americans living in a "very, very dangerous world."
Roe said Congress should rethink its approach and focus on civil liberties.
"It's the digital age," he said in an interview off the House floor Thursday. "We have to be able to use our computers, our faxes and our phones and feel like they're unimpeded by government. This has to cease."
WHO KNEW, AND WHEN?
Others defended the program. Chambliss, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement that said a daily infusion of phone records has enabled the intelligence community to "identify terrorists and those with whom they communicate."
He and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat and intelligence committee chairwoman, stressed that government analysts only see "metadata" such as the length of a call or the telephone numbers participating in a given call.
"This law does not allow the government to listen in on the content of a phone call," their joint statement said. They added that, under current law, another court order is necessary for the government "to obtain the content of an American's communication."
Chambliss said members of Congress are briefed on the program each time they are asked to reauthorize it. But Corker and Isakson indicated that Wednesday was the first they'd heard of it.
"I'm pretty good about attending meetings," Isakson said. "I don't remember being briefed."
"I had no idea until I read the Guardian story how wide-ranging the gathering of this information was," Corker said.
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at email@example.com or 423-280-2025.