Phone Surveillance Cited as Latest Failure by President to Uphold Rights; Others Say Tactic Is Crucial in Fighting Terrorism

The disclosure of a broad government effort to collect phone records of millions of U.S. consumers has rekindled a debate about President Barack Obama's commitment to civil liberties, with some lawmakers and advocacy groups saying he has broken a campaign pledge to combat terrorism in ways that protect basic freedoms.

Mr. Obama's record on civil liberties was already drawing renewed scrutiny over reports that his administration has investigated journalists as part of criminal leak cases, his increased use of drones and other matters.

As a candidate in 2008, Mr. Obama took aim at then-President George W. Bush's assertion of certain executive powers in fighting terrorism. Once in the White House, he did away with some of the tools used by Mr. Bush's administration while keeping others intact.

In certain respects, the counterterrorism tactics of the two presidents seem indistinguishable, some civil-liberties advocates say.

"Guantanamo is still open for business. News agencies are being targeted as part of a crackdown on whistleblowers," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The expanded use of drones, and now a massive surveillance program affecting millions of Americans raise the question as to whether the president's rhetoric is fundamentally out of step with his policies and actions."

The Guardian newspaper on Wednesday revealed a classified court order requiring Verizon Business Network Services to turn over phone records to the National Security Agency, a government security agency. The order didn't authorize the NSA to listen in on calls.

The revelation provoked a mixed response on Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers in both parties denounced the data-gathering effort and called for rewriting provisions of the Patriot Act that give the administration the legal authority to collect the records with the approval of a secretive tribunal called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said in an interview, "To my mind, this is not constitutional, and it's not what American democracy is about."

But other lawmakers and the White House defended the practice. "This is nothing particularly new. This has been going on for seven years...and every member of the U.S. Senate has been advised of this," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the senior Republican on the intelligence committee.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the data being collected under what he called the "purported'' court order "relates exclusively to call details, such as a telephone number or the length of a telephone call."

He added: "The information of the sort described...has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats, as it allows counterterrorism 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 U.S."

Just last month, Mr. Obama delivered a major speech in which he called for a more calibrated approach to terrorism aimed at moving the country off a permanent war footing. He said he wanted to strike a "balance" between "our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are."

Drone strikes in Pakistan began under the Bush administration. The Central Intelligence Agency carried out strikes on known terror suspects as well as some on massed militant groups.

Mr. Obama has overseen an expansion of targeted killing in Pakistan, with far more strikes carried out in his first term than Mr. Bush authorized. The administration has also carried out strikes in Somalia and has begun strikes in Yemen, aimed at weakening Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Obama administration says it's review of complete phone records of U.S. citizens is a "necessary tool" in protecting the nation from terror threats. President Obama prepares to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday.

Current and former Obama administration officials reject suggestions that Mr. Obama's national-security practices simply continue those of Mr. Bush.

Mr. Obama has broken with some of Mr. Bush's practices, including those that relied on torture and indefinite detention to wring intelligence from enemy prisoners. While congressional opposition has stymied his efforts to close Guantanamo Bay, he has rejected Republican calls to send more detainees there. And he has added some protections intended to make military commission trials there deviate less from traditional forms of justice.

But Mr. Obama, who pledged that pursuing al Qaeda would be a top objective, has vigorously employed an array of expanded powers that Congress afforded intelligence and law-enforcement agencies in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The distinction from the Bush administration, Obama officials say, is that the current president has sought to act not on his own unilateral powers, but with congressional authorization and, sometimes, judicial oversight.

"The principal difference is President Obama's much greater reluctance to invoke inherent executive power in the face of congressional prohibition or silence. That's not just an abstract difference but a concrete and important one," said Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, a former Obama Justice Department official. "Presidents who claim to have unilateral power to engage in unbridled surveillance...are playing a much more dangerous game in terms of the precedents they set for the long run."

Still, Mr. Tribe, who taught Mr. Obama constitutional law at Harvard, had some criticisms for his former student: "I wouldn't say that President Obama is disregarding constitutional limits, but I am disappointed at how narrowly he appears to construe them and at how far he seems to be pushing the envelope."