WASHINGTON Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday that members of Congress were fully briefed on the intelligence-gathering program that included the daily collection of telephone records from Verizon Communications.
Holder, the chief law enforcement official, said it would not be appropriate for him to say anything more in a public forum about the program. Britain's Guardian newspaper published on Wednesday a secret court order related to the collection of records of millions of Verizon customers.
Holder spoke to senators during a previously scheduled hearing on the Justice Department's budget.
Earlier in the day, the Obama administration defended its collection of a massive amount of telephone records as part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts to protect Americans from attacks.
Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, who questioned Holder about the program, said he was concerned that spy agencies might have obtained the phone records of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, even if by accident.
"When government bureaucrats are sloppy, they usually are really sloppy," Kirk said.
Holder responded that he could not get into specifics in public, but added, "There has been no intention to do anything of that nature - that is, to spy on members of Congress, to spy on members of the Supreme Court."
The program appears to have involved the records of millions of Americans, re-igniting a debate over privacy rights.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, defended the program at the hearing, calling it essential to preventing attacks on Americans.
"I hope the American people appreciate that we're at war, because I sure do," Graham said.
(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham)