Bush Addresses Uproar Over Spying

Bush Speaks to Reporters
President Bush gestures during a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Monday. (Chris Greenberg -- Bloomberg News)
By Peter Baker and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The political uproar over President Bush's secret domestic spying program escalated yesterday as the president denied overstepping his constitutional bounds while congressional critics from both parties stepped up their attack and vowed a full investigation.

Bush mounted a vigorous defense of his order authorizing warrantless eavesdropping on overseas telephone calls and e-mail of U.S. citizens with suspected ties to terrorists. He contended that his "obligation to protect you" against attack justified a circumvention of the traditional process in a fast-moving, high-tech battle with a shadowy enemy.

"This is a different era, a different war," the president said at a year-end news conference in the East Room. "People are changing phone numbers and phone calls, and they're moving quick. And we've got to be able to detect and prevent. I keep saying that, but this . . . requires quick action."

But Democrats and some key Republicans on Capitol Hill were unconvinced, and they questioned whether Bush has violated a law intended to prevent the government from spying on its citizens without court approval.

Voicing "grave doubts" over the legality of the National Security Agency program, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he will conduct hearings next month on the issue. To rebut suggestions of congressional acquiescence, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) released a handwritten letter he secretly sent Vice President Cheney in July 2003 objecting to the program.

The dispute further fueled the debate over the USA Patriot Act, the measure bolstering the powers of law enforcement agencies that was passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Senate yesterday again failed to muster the votes to end Democrat-led efforts to block legislation renewing the law, which expires Dec. 31. Bush angrily branded the filibuster "inexcusable" three times at his news conference but refused to accept a temporary extension.

"I want senators from New York or Los Angeles or Las Vegas to go home and explain why these cities are safer," Bush said. "It is inexcusable to say, on the one hand, 'connect the dots' and not give us a chance to do so."

The meeting with reporters was the latest effort in a presidential communications barrage intended to calm public nerves about the war in Iraq and woo back disaffected supporters; it came the morning after a prime-time Oval Office address and followed four other speeches, congressional briefings and a surprise trip to Iraq by Cheney. Bush once again counseled patience, saying that "2 1/2 years seems like an eternity, but in the march of history it's not all that long."

In the wide-ranging news conference, Bush demanded that the Senate confirm Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court by Jan. 20, even as Democrats vowed to question the nominee on his view of the NSA program. Bush acknowledged that the bungled intelligence on Iraq has made it harder to pressure Iran to drop any nuclear weapons aspirations. Looking ahead to 2006, he listed as a priority rebuilding the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, and he expressed regret that some question whether he cares enough about black victims.

But the 56-minute session became dominated by the four-year-old NSA surveillance program, which was revealed last week by the New York Times. While generally relaxed and sometimes joking, Bush grew testy when asked if he is presiding over the expansion of "unchecked power" by the executive branch. "To say 'unchecked power' basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject," he responded sharply, waving his finger.

Asked what limits he sees on a president's power in a time of war, Bush said a few key congressional leaders were briefed on the domestic spying program and his administration reviews its own actions periodically. "I just described limits on this particular program," he said. "That's what's important for the American people to understand. I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time safeguarding the civil liberties of the country."

Bush's remarks left many critics unassuaged and many questions unanswered. The president offered no details about how many people are under surveillance, what standard must be met to intercept communications or what terrorist plots have been disrupted as a result of the program.

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