President Acknowledges Approving Secretive Eavesdropping

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

President Bush said yesterday that he secretly ordered the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans with suspected ties to terrorists because it was "critical to saving American lives" and "consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution."

Bush said the 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.

In his statement, delivered during a live and unusually long radio address, the president assailed the news media for disclosing the eavesdropping program, and rebuked Senate Democrats for blocking renewal of the USA Patriot Act, which gave the FBI greater surveillance power after Sept. 11, 2001, and which expires Dec. 31.

"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."

The speech 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 NSA "authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists," Bush said. "It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties. And that is exactly what I will continue to do, so long as I'm the president of the United States."

Congressional Democrats and some Republicans have expressed outrage at the NSA program, saying it contradicts long-standing restrictions on domestic spying and subverts constitutional guarantees against unwarranted invasions of privacy.

Some of them were further incensed by Bush's remarks yesterday. "The president believes that he has the power to override the laws that Congress has passed," Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.) said. "He is a president, not a king." Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) said the administration "seems to believe it is above the law."

Rep. Dan Burton (Ind.) was among Republicans responding. "The liberal media and its liberal allies are attacking the president" for spying tactics that are legitimate and legal, he said on the House floor yesterday afternoon. "The fact is, the president is defending the United States of America."

The order signed by Bush, first reported by the New York Times online on Thursday, empowered the NSA to monitor international telephone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens and residents without the warrant normally required by a secret foreign intelligence court.

A high-ranking intelligence official said yesterday that the presidential directive was first issued in October 2001, not in 2002, as other sources have told the Times and The Washington Post. And yesterday Bush said his directive came "weeks" after Sept. 11. The high-ranking official would not say whether the authority was changed or broadened significantly in 2002 or later during regular reviews.

Hundreds and perhaps thousands of people have been subjected to the surveillance, according to government officials. 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.

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