"It's become clear that the NSA is engaged in far-reaching, intrusive and unlawful surveillance of Americans' phone calls and electronic communications," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a lawsuit against the NSA. An overhaul of the program and the law behind it is needed, he said.
On Wednesday, more than 100 digital rights and other organizations released a list of 13 principles related to human rights and electronic surveillance. Governments must "limit surveillance to that which is strictly and demonstrably necessary to achieve a legitimate aim," and they must conduct surveillance only when there's a "high degree of probability that a serious crime has been or will be committed," the document said.
Among the groups signing the human rights document were the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, the Free Software Foundation Europe and Reporters Without Borders.
Several members of the committee, both Republicans and Democrats, questioned the breadth of the NSA telephone records collection program, with senators asking how the NSA can classify nearly all U.S. telephone records as relevant to an antiterrorism investigation, as required in the Patriot Act. The hearing largely ignored the NSA's so-called Prism program, which collects the content of email and other Internet communications of targets believed to be outside the U.S.
The U.S. government needs to find a better balance between security needs and privacy, said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and committee chairman.
"We could have more security if we strip-searched everybody who came into every building in America, but we're not going to do that," Leahy sad. "We could have more security if ... we put a wiretap on everybody's cell phone in America, if we search everybody's home. But there are certain areas of our own privacy that we Americans expect."
Other senators defended Prism and the phone records collection, saying they have helped keep the U.S. safe from terrorist attacks. The phone records collection program doesn't collect the content of phone calls and several courts have ruled that the collection of business records doesn't violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment protecting U.S. residents from unreasonable searches and seizures, said Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican.
"I'm inclined to think all of these actions are consistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States," he said.
The phone records program has played an important part in several antiterrorism investigations, added Sean Joyce, deputy director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Terrorists are "trying to harm America," he said. "They're trying to strike America. We need all these tools."