Cheney Cites Justifications For Domestic Eavesdropping

"America has been protected not by luck but by sensible policy decisions," Vice President Cheney said. (By Jim Young -- Reuters)
By Jim VandeHei and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 5, 2006

Vice President Cheney said yesterday that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks might have been prevented if the Bush administration had had the power to secretly monitor conversations involving two of the hijackers without court orders.

As part of an effort to sell Americans on the administration's recently disclosed program to eavesdrop on telephone and e-mail communications between the United States and people overseas without a warrant, Cheney told a small group of conservatives at the Heritage Foundation that instead of being able to "pick up" on the terrorist plot "we didn't know they were here plotting until it was too late."

But Cheney did not mention that the government had compiled significant information on the two suspects before the attacks and that bureaucratic problems -- not a lack of information -- were primary reasons for the security breakdown, according to congressional investigators and the Sept. 11 commission. Moreover, the administration had the power to eavesdrop on their calls and e-mails, as long as it sought permission from a secret court that oversees clandestine surveillance in the United States.

The bigger problem was that the FBI and other agencies did not know where the two suspects -- Cheney's office confirmed that he was referring to Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar -- were living in the United States and had missed numerous opportunities to track them down in the 20 months before the attacks, according to the Sept. 11 commission and other sources.

In his speech, scheduled as part of a White House offensive to defend the recently disclosed surveillance program, Cheney painted an ominous portrait of U.S. security without the controversial practice. Critics said the surveillance has been unconstitutional, carried out without explicit congressional approval or court oversight. The administration said it gained broad powers from a congressional resolution after Sept. 11.

Cheney said the National Security Agency program, combined with the expanded surveillance powers authorized by the USA Patriot Act, has saved lives -- and thwarted terrorist attacks.

"No one can guarantee that we won't be hit again, but neither should anyone say that the relative safety of the last four years came as an accident," Cheney said. "America has been protected not by luck but by sensible policy decisions."

Under a secret order signed by President Bush after Sept. 11, the NSA was freed from its normal restraints and allowed to eavesdrop on the international communications of U.S. citizens and residents. Bush and other administration officials have said the spying has been limited to cases involving suspected al Qaeda associates here or overseas. "This wartime measure is limited in scope to surveillance associated with terrorists," Cheney said.

A few hours earlier, Bush met with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top officials at the Pentagon and offered an optimistic appraisal of progress in Iraq and the broader terrorism fight. Bush highlighted the recent decision to slightly reduce troop levels in Iraq and suggested that additional withdrawals could come this year.

"Later this year, if Iraqis continue to make progress on the security and political sides that we expect, we can discuss further possible adjustments with the leaders of a new government in Iraq," Bush said. The White House is planning speeches in the next few weeks to highlight progress in Iraq and defend the spying program, which has come under heavy criticism from Democrats and some Republicans. The program is expected to be scrutinized in hearings later this month.

Cheney said if the administration had the power "before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two of the hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon."

Even without the warrantless domestic spying program, however, the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies had important clues about the Sept. 11 plot and the hijackers before the attacks, according to media reports and findings by Congress and the commission.

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