Bush defends spying in U.S.WASHINGTON - President Bush acknowledged Saturday that he ordered the National Security Agency to spy on Americans and he defiantly vowed to continue such domestic electronic eavesdropping ``for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from Al-Qaida and related groups.''
By James Kuhnhenn
San Mercury News
By James Kuhnhenn
San Mercury News
In an unusual step, Bush delivered a live weekly radio address from the White House in which he defended his action as ``fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities.''
Bush's statement came a day before he was scheduled to make a rare Oval Office address to the nation, at 6 p.m. PST today, celebrating the Iraqi elections and describing what his press secretary Saturday called the ``path forward.''
White House aides said Bush appears ready to at least hint at reductions in U.S. troop levels in Iraq.
Bush said the eavesdropping program has been reviewed regularly by the nation's top legal authorities and targets only those people with ``a clear link to these terrorist networks.'' Noting the failures to detect hijackers already in the country before the strikes on New York and Washington, Bush said the NSA's domestic spying since then has helped thwart other attacks.
``The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time,'' Bush said. ``And the activities conducted under this authorization have helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad.''
The president said congressional leaders had been briefed on the operation more than a dozen times. Classified programs are typically disclosed to the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said she had been told on several occasions that Bush had authorized unspecified activities by the National Security Agency, the nation's largest spy agency. She said she had expressed strong concerns at the time, and that Bush's statement Saturday ``raises serious questions as to what the activities were and whether the activities were lawful.''
Bush's unusually frank admission came amid a bipartisan uproar in Congress after the New York Times revealed the secret NSA program Friday.
Bush said the article relied on unauthorized disclosure of classified information that ``damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk.''
Disclosure of the program helped generate opposition in the Senate on Friday to a renewal of the Patriot Act, which gave the FBI greater surveillance power after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and which expires Dec. 31.
The law, passed October 2001, made it easier for the FBI and CIA to share intelligence and gave federal authorities more power to conduct secret searches, tap phone calls, monitor e-mail and seize personal records ranging from financial documents to library lending lists.
In his radio address, the president rebuked Senate Democrats for blocking renewal of the Patriot Act.
``The terrorist threat to our country will not expire in two weeks,'' said Bush, calling a filibuster by Democratic senators opposed to the Patriot Act ``irresponsible.''
Senators blocked a vote on final passage after complaints that the new legislation did not go far enough to protect civil liberties.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Democrats have offered to extend the current law for three months to give House and Senate negotiators more time to work out changes that could be locked in for four years. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., repeatedly have said they will not accept a short-term extension.
Bush's address Saturday represented a turnaround for a White House that initially refused to discuss the highly classified NSA effort even after it was revealed in news accounts. Advisers said Bush decided to confirm the program's existence -- and combine that with a demand for reauthorization of the Patriot Act -- to put critics on the defensive by framing it as a matter of national security, not civil liberties.
The New York Times report said the NSA secretly monitored -- without court approval -- international phone calls and e-mail messages that originated in the United States. The article said the NSA eavesdropped on hundreds and perhaps thousands of U.S. citizens and other U.S. residents or tourists.
Officials have privately credited the eavesdropping with the apprehension of Iyman Faris, a truck driver who pleaded guilty in 2003 to planning to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. Bush said other plots have been disrupted as well.
A high-ranking intelligence official said Saturday that the presidential directive was first issued in October 2001, not in 2002, as other sources have told the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Went around court
The president ordered the NSA to act without approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, a special federal tribunal created in 1978 to authorize domestic counterterrorism operations.
``I don't understand why that wasn't used,'' said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. ``Congress has clearly provided for what was going on. It seems to be that that procedure should have been followed.''
In a Democratic response, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., called Bush's address a ``shocking admission'' and demanded that he halt the program immediately.
``The president believes that he has the power to override the laws that Congress has passed,'' Feingold said. ``This is not how our democratic system of government works. The president does not get to pick and choose which laws he wants to follow.
``He is a president, not a king.''
Bush supporters fell in line behind the president.
``This is war, not a tea party,'' Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said on the House floor Saturday. ``The president is doing the right thing, and we need to support him.''
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