Bush admits he OK'd spying in U.S.

President defends domestic wiretaps as crucial tool of anti-terror fight

December 18, 2005|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush acknowledged yesterday that he had personally authorized domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency and said he would continue to do so, defending the surveillance as crucial to fighting terrorism and scolding those who had revealed it.

Facing backlash from lawmakers and civil libertarians, Bush confirmed news accounts that he had granted the NSA power to spy in the United States without warrants, while he said making the surveillance public had compromised Americans' security.

"This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists," Bush said in a defiant address from the Roosevelt Room of the White House during a rare live broadcast of his weekly radio address. "It is critical to saving American lives."

The president's remarks came as he pressed Congress to renew the expiring Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 measure that grants the government broad law enforcement and surveillance authorities. Attempts to renew it stalled Friday in the Senate after a handful of Republicans joined Democrats to block it.

Revelations about the NSA domestic surveillance program have deepened a bitter stalemate between the White House and Congress over extending the measure, which expires at the end of the year. Democrats and a few Republicans advocate a temporary renewal that would provide time to add more civil liberties protections; Bush steadfastly refuses.

Democratic opponents of the measure pounced on Bush's admission yesterday as fresh evidence of the need to add strong civil liberties protections to the Patriot Act. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, called Bush's remarks "a crystal-clear signal that we must take a step back and not rush reauthorization of the Patriot Act - further risking our civil protections."

Departure for NSA

The secret wiretaps - a notable departure for the NSA, whose task is spying on foreign communications - are legal and constitutional, Bush said, responding to critics who have questioned their propriety. Bush said that he authorized the surveillance more than 30 times, that it was reviewed about every 45 days by top legal officials, including his counsel and the attorney general, and that fresh intelligence assessments were part of each review. He also said the surveillance had been disclosed to congressional leaders in more than a dozen briefings.

"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."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, acknowledged in a statement yesterday that she had been advised of Bush's decision "to provide authority to the National Security Agency to conduct unspecified activities," and has received several updates. She said she had "expressed my strong concern" during those briefings.

Hearings promised

After reports of the surveillance were published Friday in The New York Times, Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he had "no doubt that this is inappropriate," and promised to hold hearings on the matter. He was silent yesterday on Bush's defense of the program.

Other critics called the program an abuse of power. Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, called on Bush to cease the NSA surveillance program, calling his admission of the activities "shocking" and saying it "further demonstrates the urgent need for these protections" in the Patriot Act.

"The president does not get to pick and choose which laws he wants to follow. He is a president, not a king," Feingold said.

`Not a tea party'

Bush's congressional allies rushed to his defense yesterday, saying he was right to use whatever power he had to protect Americans against terrorism, and lamenting the release of information about the surveillance program.

"This is a war, not a tea party," Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, said during an impassioned House floor speech. "The president is doing the right thing, and we need to support him."

Americans must "come to grips with the world in which we live subsequent to 9/11," said Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican. Bush "has to do everything within the bounds of the law to protect us, and we should expect him to do that."

Bush's decision to acknowledge the surveillance program was a turnabout for a president who prizes secrecy and had declined the day before to confirm or deny the news reports.

Disclosure of the program has reopened a searching debate over the lengths to which the government can go to protect Americans in an age of terrorism.

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