By Anushka Asthana and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 8, 2006
ATLANTA, Sept. 7 -- President Bush urged Congress Thursday to give him "additional authority" to continue his administration's warrantless eavesdropping program. The speech was his latest effort in several days to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by framing the election-year national security debate to political and policy advantage.
Bush asserted that his administration has filled many of the security gaps exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks but said he needs more power to adapt to changes in the threat.
"The nature of communications has changed quite dramatically," Bush warned in an address here. "The terrorists who want to harm America can now buy disposable cellphones and open anonymous e-mail messages. Our laws need to change to take these changes into account."
The president's appeal for congressional action to strengthen the legal underpinnings of the National Security Agency's surveillance program ran into roadblocks even as he spoke. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) suspended efforts to draft legislation until at least next week after Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) proposed new amendments and a bipartisan group of senators urged more hearings.
Challenges also emerged to new rules Bush outlined Wednesday for putting foreign terrorist suspects on trial. In congressional testimony, U.S. military lawyers criticized his proposed military commissions as lacking sufficient judicial protections for defendants.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats moved to match Bush in harnessing the emotional power of the anniversary commemoration to a policy argument. Introducing what they dubbed the Real Security Act of 2006, they called for a plan to accelerate redeployment of troops out of Iraq, overhaul procedures for bringing accused terrorists to trial and redistribute homeland security funds.
While the plan says Democrats want to "change the course in Iraq" by accelerating a phased redeployment, it does not offer specifics about troop levels or a timetable. Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told a Capitol Hill news conference that Republicans had "failed to make America as safe as we can and should be" and "want to 'stay the course' in the face of failure" in Iraq.
Bush's aggressive defense of the administration's national security policies, amid rising public disapproval of both the Iraq war and his overall management of the war against terrorism, has been a careful balance between claims of progress and warnings of remaining threats.
In his remarks here, Bush delivered what he called a "progress report" on "what we have done to fix the problems that the 9/11 attacks revealed."
Improved intelligence, tougher immigration and better airport security, coupled with diplomatic and military pressure, meant terrorists would find it far harder to plan or carry out an attack like the Sept. 11 assaults on New York and Washington, he told an audience assembled by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
"Many Americans look at these events and ask the same question. Five years after 9/11, are we safer? The answer is, yes, America is safer. We are safer because we've taken action to protect the homeland. We are safer because we are on offense against our enemies overseas. We're safer because of the skill and sacrifice of the brave Americans who defend our people.
"Yet five years after 9/11, America still faces determined enemies, and we will not be safe until those enemies are finally defeated."
Dividing the Sept. 11 attacks into four "stages," Bush said that each had exposed gaps in the nation's defenses. Osama bin Laden had found in Afghanistan a safe haven for terrorists to train and plan the attacks. Al-Qaeda operatives were able to enter the United States undetected and, once here, to transfer money and move about freely. Finally, they were able to pass through airport security and board planes with box cutters they used to take control of the aircraft.
After the attacks, his "new doctrine" of holding nations harboring or supporting terrorists responsible had allowed the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and the installation of a democratic government, Bush said. Diplomatic, financial and intelligence initiatives had ensured that "al-Qaeda can no longer move widely without fearing for their lives."
Noting that the Sept. 11 commission that investigated the attacks and other inquiries had recommended a series of intelligence and institutional reforms, Bush recited what he called major changes in federal law enforcement that allowed the Justice Department and the FBI to concentrate more attention on terrorism. Walls that prevented intelligence and criminal investigators from talking to each other had been torn down by the USA Patriot Act, he said, and the establishment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) allowed information-sharing between federal officials and their state and local counterparts.
Bush defended his initiation of a domestic "terrorist surveillance program" as vital to stay in front of the terrorists. The 2001 program secretly authorized the National Security Agency to monitor phone and e-mail communications between people in the United States and suspected terrorists abroad without first obtaining a warrant.
The program was "leaked to the news media" last year, and "was then challenged in court," Bush said. He said his administration. "strongly disagrees" with the ruling of a federal judge in Michigan who last month declared the program unconstitutional. "We are appealing it, and we believe our appeal will be successful," he said. "A series of protracted legal challenges would put a heavy burden on this critical and vital program."
Although Bush claimed credit for domestic reforms after the attacks, many of them -- including the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the ODNI and the NCTC -- were implemented in the face of initial administration resistance. The Sept. 11 commission, which last December assessed the administration's reform record as mediocre at best, has remained unimpressed. Six months after that report card, commission chairman Thomas H. Kean told Congress this summer that "our perspective now . . . is just about the same. There is still a great deal we have to do and still haven't done to protect the American people."
A report titled "9/11 Five Years Later: Success and Challenges," issued by the White House Thursday to coincide with Bush's speech, focused more on events overseas than at home. In it, the White House took credit only for adopting "a comprehensive approach" toward such priorities as maritime and aviation security, noting, "our Homeland is not immune from attack."
Congressional critics have focused on the administration's shortcomings in securing chemical plants and aviation cargo, and in scanning shipping containers for radiation. The Department of Homeland Security is far behind schedule in developing industry-specific plans to protect vital facilities, while states are resisting calls to overhaul national requirements for ID cards.
Interoperable communications -- a problem in the Sept. 11 attacks and in Hurricane Katrina last year -- remain a fundamental problem for emergency first responders, with 82 percent of states reporting recently that such efforts were still "in progress."
DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.