By Dave Williams
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss Monday defended the collection of Americans' phone records by the federal government as vital to protecting public safety in an age of terrorism.
The Georgia Republican, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the nation's spy agencies probably could have prevented the deadly 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 if they had possessed today's technology for tracking phone calls.
"The whole scenario sounds bad when you read it in the papers," Chambliss told members of the Atlanta Rotary Club during a luncheon speech. "[But] we're doing our level best to balance privacy issues [against] capturing bad guys."
Media reports last week of a secret court order directing Verizon to turn over telephone records to the FBI unleashed a storm of protest against the Obama administration for treading on Americans' right to privacy.
The president responded that the information gathering is necessary to safeguard Americans from terrorism. Congressional leaders from both parties backed his argument.
On Monday, Chambliss said the data the National Security Agency collects is limited to telephone numbers and the time and duration of phone calls rather than what is said during those calls. The information is stored in a database for five years, and anything that does not cause suspicion of terrorist activity is destroyed, he said.
"If you're a bad guy, you need to be concerned," he said. "If you're just calling your wife or [making] a business call, there is absolutely no reason for you to be concerned."
On other topics, Chambliss said passage of immigration reform legislation now before the Senate depends on whether it adequately secures the nation's borders and whether it requires the 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already here to get in line for citizenship behind those who have come to America legally.
"This country was founded by immigrants," he said. "We still depend on legal immigration."
Chambliss also touched on several other scandals that have roiled Washington, D.C., in recent months. He promised that Congress will get to the bottom of what happened last Sept. 11, when the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed in what the Obama administration now concedes was a terrorist attack.
And Chambliss said "heads should roll" before the end of congressional investigations into the targeting of conservative political groups by the Internal Revenue Service.