David Jackson, USA TODAY
National Security Agency surveillance programs came under more scrutiny Tuesday as the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit and a prominent senator and an Internet company called on the Obama administration to disclose more information.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU said an NSA program that harvests phone calls violates the rights of all Americans.
"The program goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy," said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director.
Meanwhile, the Internet company Google sought permission to disclose more details about another contested NSA program, one that allows the government to collect online information from non-U.S. citizens.
And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters she has asked Gen. Keith B. Alexander -- the head of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command -- to declassify more information about its phone and Internet surveillance programs.
The goal is "so that we can talk about them, because I think they're really helpful," she said.
The Guardian and Washington Post disclosed these programs last week, based on leaks from a former NSA contract employee.
Edward Snowden, who is under investigation by the Justice Department for disclosure of classified information, fled to Hong Kong before announcing Sunday he was the source of the leaks. The consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton issued a statement Tuesday confirming that Snowden had been fired from his $122,000-a-year job "for violations of the firm's code of ethics and firm policy."
President Obama and aides have defended the NSA phone and Internet intercept programs, saying they have helped prevent terrorist attacks and are subject to oversight by Congress and a special (and secret) court.
"They make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity," Obama said, also citing "strict supervision by all three branches of government."
"They do not involve listening to people's phone calls, do not involve reading the emails of U.S. citizens or U.S. residents absent further action by a federal court that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation," Obama said.
In its lawsuit -- which deals just with the phone call program -- the ACLU said that the NSA collection system violates rights of free speech and privacy. The ACLU noted it is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services, the recipient of a secret court order published by The Guardian last week. The order requires Verizon to turn over all phone call details, including who places them, who receives them and when and where they are made.
"The crux of the government's justification for the program is the chilling logic that it can collect everyone's data now and ask questions later," said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney for the ACLU's National Security Project.
Google, meanwhile, says it has been an unwitting participant in the NSA Internet program known as PRISM. The company said it had never heard of PRISM until last week.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, Google said it can prove it does not hand the government data on a broad scale if it is allowed to publicly discuss requests made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
"Google's numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made," wrote David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer. "Google has nothing to hide."