By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 2, 2006
President Bush today mounted his third defense in two weeks of his secret domestic spying program, calling his order authorizing warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens a limited, legal program that Americans understand is protecting their security.
Taking questions from reporters after a brief stop at an Army hospital in San Antonio to visit wounded troops, the president acknowledged concerns that monitoring overseas telephone calls and e-mails of citizens with suspected ties to terrorism may violate civil liberties. But he called his directive to the National Security Agency (NSA) after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks "vital and necessary" to protect the country.
"This is a limited program designed to prevent attacks on the United States of America, and I repeat limited," Bush said before flying back to Washington after six days cloistered on his ranch in Crawford, Tex. "I think most Americans understand the need to find out what the enemy's thinking.
"If somebody from al Qaeda is calling you, we'd like to know why."
The president's first public comments of the new year after no public appearances last week offered a glimpse into how his administration intends to deflect congressional inquiries into his authorization of wiretaps on terrorism suspects -- with a vigorous defense of the program as a matter of national security. Bush acknowledged in a live radio address last month that he authorized the four-year-old surveillance program and defended it as "critical to saving American lives," a tool to prevent another attack on U.S. soil. Two days later, he defended the legality of domestic spying in a lengthy year-end news conference at the White House.
"It seems logical to me that if we know there's a phone number associated with al Qaeda or an al Qaeda affiliate and they're making phone calls, it makes sense to find out why," Bush said at the Brooke Army Medical Center, where he met with about 50 wounded soldiers, Marines and airmen and their families. He also awarded nine Purple Hearts to troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They attacked us before, they'll attack us again."
The NSA is empowered to monitor international telephone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens and residents without the warrant usually required by a secret foreign intelligence court. Government officials have said that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people have been under surveillance.
Questions about whether Bush overstepped his constitutional authority and violated a law intended to prevent the government from spying on its citizens without court approval are likely to be central to hearings planned this month by lawmakers, who stepped up their criticism today.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he supports a Senate investigation into who leaked classified information on the spying program. But he said the issue of whether the president skirted the law when he embarked on the program is more important than who leaked the information.
Schumer said today that he has sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) calling on him to request testimony from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and former attorney general John D. Ashcroft. Specter, who has expressed "grave" doubts about the program, has vowed to conduct hearings this month.
"I hope the White House won't hide behind saying, 'Oh, executive privilege, we can't discuss this,' " Schumer said on "Fox News Sunday." "That's the wrong attitude."
Along with the Senate, the Justice Department announced last week that it has opened a criminal investigation into disclosures about the domestic wiretaps, revealed last month by the New York Times. Today, Bush said the leaks could cause "great harm" to the United States. "There's an enemy out there."
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), speaking on Fox, agreed that finding out who leaked details of the spying program is crucial "because whoever leaked this information has done the U.S. and its national security a great disservice."
But he said the investigation may be more appropriately handled by the Senate Intelligence Committee, where many discussions are held behind closed doors. "We're talking about this entirely too much out in public as a result of these leaks and it's endangering our efforts to make Americans more secure," McConnell said.
In Texas, Bush dodged a question about whether he was aware of any resistance to the spying program by high-ranking Justice officials and whether those concerns may have influenced his decision to approve it.
He said the Justice Department and members of Congress have reviewed the program and continue to have oversight. He said he believes he is acting within in law.
"The NSA program is one that listens to a few numbers called from the outside of the United States of known al Qaeda or affiliated people," he said.
The White House later clarified that the program monitors both incoming and outgoing calls.
Staff writer Darryl Fears contributed to this report.