* Media reports prompt controversy
* Left and right upset, but not center
* Obama unapologetic, invites debate
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, June 7 The strongest criticism of
President Barack Obama normally comes from the U.S. Congress,
but reports the government engaged in sweeping surveillance of
Americans' phone and Internet activity left even many of his
critics uncharacteristically supportive.
A few lawmakers called for probes or closed-door hearings
after the reports surfaced this week and a small group
introduced a bill seeking to "stop the National Security Agency
from spying on citizens of the United States."
"Our investment in protecting American lives and liberties
simultaneously is not a blank check," said Republican Senator
Lisa Murkowski, who called for a "thorough vetting of this
policy" on Friday.
But support for strong security measures is one of few
issues that crosses Washington's usually rigid party lines.
With reactions among Republicans and Democrats mixed, there is
little chance of change from Capitol Hill.
Obama staunchly defended the programs on Friday, saying they
helped keep the country safe from terrorist attacks. The
president noted, several times, that Congress is "fully briefed"
on the data tracking activity.
The disclosure left lawmakers scrambling for a response,
with Republicans as well as Obama's fellow Democrats echoing his
assertion that the country has to strike a delicate balance
between privacy and security concerns.
"The question is always the balance between protecting the
American people, and protecting our freedoms. And so I always
think we have to review that, but there's no question that these
programs have saved lives," U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a
California Democrat, said on Friday.
Senator Marco Rubio expressed similar concerns. "Programs
like this have great utility, and on the other hand, the
American people want to feel confident that their government
isn't watching them," the Florida Republican told reporters on
Thursday evening after a briefing by intelligence agencies.
The briefing reassured Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee
Republican, who called it helpful in a statement Friday.
A debate over privacy rights was stoked this week by a
report in the Guardian newspaper on Thursday that the National
Security Agency has been mining phone records from millions of
customers of a subsidiary of Verizon Communications.
On Friday, The Washington Post reported federal authorities
have been tapping into the central servers of companies
including Google Inc., Apple Inc and Facebook
Inc to gain access to emails, photos and other files.
CIVIL LIBERTIES AT ISSUE
Members of the conservative "Tea Party" movement in the
House of Representatives and Senate criticized the government.
So did liberals including Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Dick
Durbin and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who describes himself
as a democratic socialist.
"It's the same coalition that's been frustrated with
homeland or national security since the Bush administration, an
odd coalition of libertarian Republicans and civil liberties
Democrats," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public
policy at Princeton University.
But defenders of the program included leading Republicans
such as U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and House
of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers,
as well as an array of Democrats including Senate Democratic
leader Harry Reid.
"On other issues, these sides are far apart," Zelizer said.
"This is an issue-based alliance."