WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congressional Democrats demanded answers from the Bush administration Thursday about a report that the government secretly collected records of ordinary Americans' phone calls to build a database of every call made within the country.
"It is our government, it's not one party's government. It's America's government. Those entrusted with great power have a duty to answer to Americans what they are doing," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth telephone companies began turning over records of tens of millions of their customers' phone calls to the National Security Agency program shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, USA Today reported, citing anonymous sources it said had direct knowledge of the arrangement.
The telephone companies on Thursday declined to comment on national security matters, and would say only that they are assisting government agencies in accordance with the law.
"We have been in full compliance with the law and we are committed to our customers' privacy," said Bob Varettoni, a spokesman for Verizon.
The White House defended its overall eavesdropping program and said no domestic surveillance is conducted without court approval.
"The intelligence activities undertaken by the United States government are lawful, necessary and required to protect Americans from terrorist attacks," said Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary, who added that appropriate members of Congress have been briefed on intelligence activities.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would call the phone companies to appear before the panel "to find out exactly what is going on."
Before the latest report, Specter said the committee "has been unable to perform our constitutional oversight responsibilities to determine the constitutionality of the program."
Leahy sounded incredulous about the latest report and railed against what he called a lack of congressional oversight. He argued that the media was doing the job of Congress.
"Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al Qaeda?" Leahy asked. "These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything ... Where does it stop?"
The Democrat, who at one point held up a copy of the newspaper, added: "Somebody ought to tell the truth and answer questions. They haven't. The press has done our work for us and we should be ashamed. Shame on us for being so far behind and being so willing to rubber stamp anything this administration does. We ought to fold our tents."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said bringing the telephone companies before the Judiciary Committee is an important step.
"We need more. We need to take this seriously, more seriously than some other matters that might come before the committee because our privacy as American citizens is at stake," Durbin said.
The program does not involve listening to or taping the calls. Instead it documents who talks to whom in personal and business calls, whether local or long distance, by tracking which numbers are called, the newspaper said.
The NSA and the Office of National Intelligence Director did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
NSA is the same spy agency that conducts the controversial domestic eavesdropping program that has been acknowledged by President Bush. The president said last year that he authorized the NSA to listen, without warrants, to international phone calls involving Americans suspected of terrorist links.