Campaign To Justify Spying Intensifies
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
A senior U.S. intelligence official offered a wide-ranging and detailed defense of the National Security Agency's domestic spying program yesterday, kicking off a White House campaign aimed at convincing the public that the effort is both legal and necessary to combat al Qaeda terrorists.
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the former NSA chief who is now deputy director of national intelligence, told reporters in Washington that the warrantless eavesdropping on calls and e-mails between the United States and overseas was "targeted and focused" and did not constitute a "driftnet" over U.S. cities.
Hayden compared the intelligence techniques used in the program to the tactics employed in deciding whether to drop a 500-pound bomb on a terrorist target.
In a separate speech later in the day, President Bush also repeated his argument that Congress effectively endorsed the program of eavesdropping without warrants under its authorization of military action against al Qaeda, dubbing the effort "a terrorist surveillance program."
The president also focused on classified briefings that the White House gave for some senior leaders in Congress. "It's amazing that people say to me, 'Well, he's just breaking the law.' If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?" he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd at Kansas State University.
The remarks opened a three-day blitz by the administration aimed in part at making the controversial eavesdropping program a political winner for the White House in a midterm election year. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales will discuss the legal underpinnings for the program today, and Bush will pay a rare visit to NSA headquarters tomorrow to highlight its work.
The strategy was signaled by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove in a speech last week that framed the issue as a contest between Republicans who want to protect Americans from terrorists and Democrats who are trying to sabotage the administration's efforts. Some key Republicans have expressed misgivings about the program's legality as well, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings on the issue next month.
Rather than hope the matter goes away, Rove and other Bush advisers are eager to engage on the topic because they see it as a useful wedge issue to define Democrats as weak on terrorism. A similar tactic was used with great success by Republicans during midterm races in 2002.
Democrats immediately fired back in response to the remarks by Bush and Hayden. The office of Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) criticized Bush's "refusal to come clean" about the NSA spying effort and issued a "graded report" alleging that Hayden's speech was "poorly researched."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a statement that Bush "failed to explain why he considers himself above the law" and castigated the administration for failing to capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Some experts on intelligence and national security law have said that the president overstepped his authority in ordering the NSA spying, and that the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) specifically prohibits such domestic surveillance without a warrant. But the Justice Department issued a "white paper" last week arguing that the president has inherent war powers under the Constitution allowing him to authorize the program.
"I'm mindful of your civil liberties and so I had all kinds of lawyers review the process," Bush said yesterday.