By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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."
(This story has been fixed to changes a word in a quote in the third paragraph to "thorough")
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Eric Walsh)