Bush defends his spy powers

President declares he `absolutely' can authorize NSA action without court approval

December 20, 2005|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that he "absolutely" had the power to order a secret National Security Agency program to eavesdrop inside the United States without warrants, while a key Democrat said the White House ignored concerns he raised about the NSA operation more than two years ago.

Bush scolded as "shameful" those who divulged the existence of the program to journalists, saying they had helped terrorists adjust their tactics. He added that he expects the Justice Department to investigate who leaked the information.

The president angrily denied that the NSA program is an exercise of "unchecked" presidential power, saying the role of commander in chief outlined in the Constitution and a 2001 congressional resolution authorizing the war on terror gave him the authority to implement it.

His lawyers have approved and reviewed the operation repeatedly, Bush said, adding that Congress had been briefed more than a dozen times.

Americans should know the program "is a necessary part of my job to protect you," the president said at a year-end news conference, and that "we're guarding your civil liberties."

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said he attended a classified briefing on the program in July 2003 and accused Bush of misrepresenting those sessions. Rockefeller also said Vice President Dick Cheney never responded to concerns he expressed about the activities.

Lawmakers, Rockefeller said in a statement, received only "limited information" about the NSA program during briefings so "overly restricted" that they had no chance to either approve or reject the program, nor any opportunity to consult with colleagues or staff about its legality.

Rockefeller made public a handwritten letter to Cheney from July 17, 2003, the day he said he was first informed about the domestic eavesdropping program, in which he wrote, in part, "I feel unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse these activities," and they raise "lingering concerns."

In the letter, Rockefeller compared the NSA operation to a controversial Pentagon data-mining program known as "Total Information Awareness" that Congress killed in 2003 amid civil liberties concerns, writing that he was concerned about "the direction the administration is moving with regard to security, technology, and surveillance."

`Fat's in the fire'

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said he was "skeptical" of Bush's legal rationale for the program.

"The fat's in the fire," said Specter, who plans to hold hearings on the matter in January. "This is going to be a big, big issue. There's a lot of indignation across the country on this matter."

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said he was briefed just once on the program, earlier this year, and was never given an opportunity to endorse or oppose it. The account was apparently incomplete and lacking "key details," based on recent public reports about the NSA spying, Reid said.

The White House launched an intense effort to deflect criticism of the NSA domestic wiretaps, including appearances by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales on the TV networks' morning programs and followed by Bush's nearly hourlong news conference in the ornate East Room of the White House.

"We have an obligation to protect you, and we're doing that and, at the same time, protecting your civil liberties," Bush said, as questions about the NSA program dominated the sometimes contentious session with reporters.

Rebutting critics who said that the administration should have sought approval from a secret court that normally approves intercepts in intelligence cases, Bush said that allowing NSA to conduct its activities without a warrant "enables us to move faster and quicker."

"And that's important," Bush said. "We've got to be fast on our feet, quick to detect and prevent."

The president bristled when challenged about his right to conduct the NSA domestic spying program, becoming especially brusque when a reporter suggested he was asserting unbridled presidential authority during wartime.

"To say `unchecked power' basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject," Bush said. "I just described limits on this particular program."

Democrats called for an end to the program, accusing Bush of engaging in a power-grab.

Bush "has stated a doctrine that he can just make up the law and create whatever other powers he wants on his own," said Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin.

"We will not tolerate a president who believes that he is the sole decision-maker when it comes to the policies that this country should have in the war against terror, and the policies we should have to protect the rights of completely innocent Americans."

Investigation

Bush's congressional allies joined calls for an investigation into the NSA's domestic eavesdropping.

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