Bush Reasserts Presidential Prerogatives

At a news conference, Bush said
At a news conference, Bush said "there's no doubt" that NSA domestic spying is legal. (Susan Biddle - Twp)
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

President Bush set limits yesterday on White House cooperation in three political disputes, saying he is determined to assert presidential prerogatives on such matters as domestic eavesdropping and congressional inquiries into Hurricane Katrina.

In a mid-morning news conference, Bush told reporters he is skeptical of a proposed law imposing new oversights on his use of the National Security Agency to listen in on electronic communications. He also said that he will block White House aides from testifying about the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and that he will not release official White House photos of himself with former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Facing repeated questions, Bush distanced himself from Abramoff, who is at the center of the biggest political corruption and bribery scandal in a generation. Bush said he does not recall having his picture taken with Abramoff or ever meeting him. Abramoff was a member of the exclusive club of Bush's $100,000 fundraisers known as Pioneers.

"Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean that I'm a friend with him or know him very well," Bush told reporters.

According to three people who reviewed half a dozen photos of the men, Bush is pictured at official gatherings and fundraisers with Abramoff and his children. He also attended a White House meeting with some of Abramoff's clients, including tribal leaders and the then-speaker of the House for the Northern Mariana Islands, the sources said. Abramoff has pictures from the event, they said.

If prosecutors "believe something was done inappropriately in the White House, they'll come and look and they're welcome to do so," Bush said. The White House has also refused to detail meetings between Abramoff and top White House aides.

The president was similarly adamant about not allowing top aides to testify about Hurricane Katrina. Bush, who has moved on several fronts over the past five years to strengthen the power of the presidency, said it would be damaging to him and future presidents if aides feared providing candid advice.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a staunch supporter of Bush on foreign policy, has accused the White House of undermining the probe by refusing to detail the role of White House officials. "If people give me advice and they're forced to disclose that advice, it means the next time an issue comes up I might not be able to get unvarnished advice from my advisers," Bush said. "And that's just the way it works."

On the issue of NSA eavesdropping on overseas communications to or from U.S. citizens, Bush said he is concerned about Congress writing a new spying law because it could force the government to provide details and clues about a top-secret program used to hunt down terrorists.

"There's no doubt in my mind it is legal," Bush said. Democrats have accused Bush of breaking the law by authorizing the spying program without approval from Congress or the courts. The debate is expected to dominate hearings, scheduled to begin Feb. 6, on the highly classified NSA program.

"But it's important for people to understand that this program is so sensitive and so important that if information gets out to how we run it or how we operate it, it'll help the enemy," he said. "Why tell the enemy what we're doing?"

In his 10th news conference since winning reelection, Bush talked at length about presidential power but also previewed next week's State of the Union speech and weighed in on several foreign policy issues, including the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections.

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