WASHINGTON (AFP) - Civil liberty groups, privacy campaigners and some United States (US) lawmakers reacted with outrage on Thursday to revelations that the US intelligence community is monitoring millions of Americans' telephone records.
As Washington was jolted by overnight news that US carrier Verizon was under secret court order to provide sweeping amounts of phone data to intelligence agencies, senior US lawmakers insisted the programme was legal and has been going on for years.
But critics vented their anger at what appears to be a dramatically broad scope of surveillance.
"It's a programme in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents," said Mr Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
"It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies."
Former vice-president Al Gore, on his Twitter feed, agreed: "In (this) digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"
London's The Guardian newspaper reported that Verizon, one of the major US telephone operators, is under a top-secret court order to give the National Security Agency (NSA) details on all telephone calls, both domestic and international, made on its networks.
Reproducing the order on its website, the Guardian said it shows for the first time that under President Barack Obama's administration, the phone records of millions of Americas are being indiscriminately collected by the NSA "regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing". The White House did not explicitly confirm the report, but a senior official acknowledged that collecting phone records was a critical part of the ongoing US war on terror, as authorised under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa).
The top members of the Senate Intelligence Committee quickly defended the programme, stressing that many lawmakers are well aware of the activity.
"This is nothing particularly new, this has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the Fisa authority," said ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss.
Democratic chair Dianne Feinstein agreed, saying intelligence agencies are only concerned with metadata that might shed light on terrorist activities, and further monitoring would not be possible without a Fisa court order.
"Terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing that we have to deter this is good intelligence, to understand that a plot is being hatched and to get there before they get to us," she said.
But several senators expressed worry at the breadth of the programme.
"Obviously it's a matter of concern," senior Republican Senator John McCain told reporters.
Tracking terror planning and activities is a necessary part of counterterrorism operations, he said.
"But if it was something where we just blanket started finding out who everybody called and under what circumstances, then I think it deserves congressional hearings."
Democrat Dick Durbin insisted that the Obama administration was not expanding surveillance powers, merely continuing those that were "started under the (George W) Bush administration".
But Senator Rand Paul, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, had a different take, branding the order to hand over millions of phone records "an astounding assault on the Constitution".
Senate Democrat Mark Udall, who wrote Attorney General Eric Holder last year expressing concern about US secret orders, joined several other senators in demanding to hear the White House's justification for such sweeping surveillance.
"The administration I think owes it to the American public to comment on what authorities it thinks it has," Mr Udall said.
There was no immediate reaction from Verizon, which alongside AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, is among the biggest telephone operators in the US.
Ms Michelle Richardson of the ACLU's legislative office said: "Now that this unconstitutional surveillance effort has been revealed, the government should end it and disclose its full scope."