Bush defends anti-terror efforts

He won't comment on reports of domestic spying by NSA

lawmakers to investigate

December 17, 2005|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush defended himself yesterday amid reports that he authorized domestic spying by the National Security Agency, saying he has always followed the law in fighting terrorism. But senior lawmakers expressed deep concern about such eavesdropping and vowed to investigate the matter.

On a day when the Senate blocked renewal of the USA Patriot Act citing concerns about civil liberties, Bush and some of his closest advisers refused to confirm or deny news reports that Bush gave the NSA the authority to snoop domestically without warrants on as many as 500 people since 2002 - a practice that violates the agency's long-standing policy against spying within the United States.

In an interview broadcast last night on PBS, Bush said that he has always acted lawfully in his efforts to protect Americans against terrorist attacks.

"Whatever I do to protect the American people, and I have an obligation to do so," he said, "we will uphold the law, and decisions made are made understanding we have an obligation to protect the civil liberties of the American people."

The reports made yesterday by The New York Times alarmed some lawmakers, civil libertarians and intelligence analysts who questioned whether the NSA, which spies on foreign communications, should be engaged in U.S. eavesdropping, and whether doing so without judicial approval could cross legal or constitutional lines.

Administration officials declined to say whether they viewed NSA spying on people in the United States as illegal or unconstitutional, arguing that commenting on any aspect of U.S. intelligence operations would harm U.S. interests.

"That's important not to talk about," Bush said, because "we're at a war with an enemy that still wants to attack."

Top members of Congress in both parties - many of them expressing shock and anger over the allegations - said the practice was intolerable.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said his panel would hold hearings on the matter. If Bush authorized NSA eavesdropping on U.S. citizens, Specter said, "that's wrong, and it can't be condoned at all."

The revelations came as a handful of Republicans joined Democrats to block renewal of the Patriot Act, which gives U.S. authorities broad surveillance powers for fighting terrorism, saying they were concerned the law infringed on civil liberties.

Specter said the account of the NSA's domestic spying activities had proven "very, very problemsome, if not devastating," to the measure, although some opponents said the legislation was doomed before the story broke.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said that if the NSA report were true, "obviously, I wouldn't like it," adding that lawmakers "should be informed as to exactly what's going on and then find out whether an investigation is called for."

The story added intensity to mounting questions on Capitol Hill and among the public about Bush's terrorism policies - including whether his administration condones torturing detainees or operates secret prisons overseas - that are beginning to cost the president what polls have long suggested is a key source of his popularity: his high ratings on handling terrorism.

And it torpedoed, at least temporarily, what had appeared to be a relatively successful public-relations effort by Bush and his team over the past few weeks aimed at recovering some degree of public support for the war as Iraqis went to the polls for their first free elections Thursday. Bush vented frustration on that score in the PBS interview, contradicting news anchor Jim Lehrer when he suggested that the domestic spying account was the top news yesterday.

"It's not the main story of the day," Bush interrupted. "The main story of the day is the Iraqi elections."

On Capitol Hill, however, lawmakers called the NSA report significant, with some citing it as disturbing evidence that Bush was willing to trample on rights in the name of security.

"This administration feels it's above the law, and the American people - and our Constitution - pay the price. There is no accountability and no oversight," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "This is Big Brother run amok."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, expressed concern that the administration had not been straight with her about the issue and could be acting illegally.

At an April hearing on the Patriot Act, Mikulski asked whether the NSA, "the great electronic snooper," could "spy on the American people."

Alberto R. Gonzales, the attorney general, responded, "There are limits upon the NSA in terms of what they can do in spying upon the American people."

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