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.
"The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time," he said.
Bush said the program is reviewed every 45 days by the attorney general and White House counsel and that he must then reauthorize it to keep it active. He said he has reauthorized it more than 30 times "and I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al Qaeda and related groups."
The president also said the administration has briefed key members of Congress on the program a dozen times. Classified programs are typically disclosed to the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Bush justified his order on his presidential powers as commander in chief as well as his interpretation of the congressional resolution authorizing him to use force in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, passed days after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit. But Bush did not explain his constitutional thinking, nor how the 2001 resolution gave him the authority to order domestic spying. He took no questions, and aides would not discuss the legal issues surrounding the program.
The NSA surveillance is the latest chapter in a growing political struggle over the contours of the administration's tactics against terrorism. Two days ago, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) forced Bush to accept a new law explicitly outlawing the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. Several senators are pressing the administration to provide information on secret CIA detention facilities overseas. And the debate over the Patriot Act centers on how far law enforcement can go in trying to find terrorist plots.
The president criticized the media for reporting on the NSA surveillance as well as the officials who "improperly" provided the information. "As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk," he said.
The White House decision to confirm the program was an extraordinary move by an administration that almost never publicly discusses such classified methods adopted in its battle against terrorism. The administration, for instance, has never publicly discussed the existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe even after they were reported in The Post.
But in this case, with the Patriot Act renewal on the line, the president's advisers calculated that they should go on the offensive. "This directly takes on the Democrats and puts them in a box -- support our efforts to protect Americans or defend positions that put our nation's security at greater risk," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss political strategy. "We are confident most Americans support the president's actions."
Bush's confirmation of the NSA order, on the other hand, could embolden congressional critics to explore the extent of the program.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has already called such surveillance "inappropriate" and vowed to conduct hearings. It may prove harder for the administration to withhold information now that the president has publicly acknowledged its existence.
Staff writers Charles Babington and Barton Gellman contributed to this report.