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Bush defends use of wiretaps
McClatchy Newspapers


January 24, 2006
Tuesday AM

WASHINGTON - President Bush and top aides stoutly defended his wiretapping directive Monday, launching a three-day offensive to regain control of public debate on the controversy in advance of congressional hearings.

Democrats fired back with a barrage of pointed criticisms about the electronic eavesdropping program Bush authorized shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

jpg Bush

President George W. Bush takes one of many questions from an enthusiastic audience during his remarks on the War on Terror at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas Monday.
White House photo by Eric Draper

During a broader address on Iraq and terrorism at Kansas State University, Bush described the surveillance initiative - which set off a political firestorm when it was revealed last month - as legal, limited in scope and necessary to protect Americans. "I made the decision to do the following things because there's an enemy that still wants to harm the American people," Bush said. "What I'm talking about is the intercept of certain communications emanating between somebody inside the United States and outside the United States, and one of the numbers would be reasonably suspected to be an al Qaeda link or affiliate. In other words, we have ways to determine whether or not someone can be an al Qaeda affiliate or al Qaeda. And if they're making a phone call in the United States, it seems like to me we want to know why."

Bush said he acted legally.

"If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?" Bush said. "Federal courts have consistently ruled that a president has authority under the Constitution to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance against our enemies. Predecessors of mine have used that same constitutional authority."

Congressional leaders from both parties have complained that the briefings didn't fully disclose the scope of the program, and Republicans have joined Democrats in raising concerns. Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, summoned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify about the eavesdropping at a Feb. 6 hearing.

The core issue is whether Bush had the legal power to bypass a special, closed-door court Congress set up in 1978 to issue warrants for foreign intelligence surveillance.

At a contentious news conference in Washington, Gen. Michael Hayden, who headed the National Security Agency when it implemented Bush's eavesdropping directive, repeatedly said the program safeguarded civil liberties.

"When you're talking to your daughter at state college, this program cannot intercept your conversations," said Hayden, now deputy director of intelligence in the government's reorganized espionage apparatus. "And when she takes a semester abroad to complete her Arabic studies, this program will not intercept your communications."

Sharply rebuffing news reports of "domestic spying" as distorted, Hayden said: "This isn't a driftnet out there where we're soaking up everyone's communications. We are going after very specific communications that our professional judgment tells us we have reason to believe are those associated with people who want to kill Americans."

An Arab journalist asked Hayden whether the program is targeting Arab Americans or Muslim Americans, and a member of an anti-war group demanded to know whether conversations among Bush's political foes are being monitored. Hayden responded no to both.

Gonzales was to deliver an address on the surveillance initiative Tuesday while Bush is scheduled to visit the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., on Wednesday.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, issued one statement rebutting Bush's assertions about the wiretapping and a second release that criticized Hayden's claims.

"We will stop at nothing to hunt down and defeat the terrorists, and we will do that by holding firm to our deepest values of democracy and liberty," Reid said. "That is why Americans of all backgrounds and political parties are concerned about NSA's domestic spying program. I am eager for the Bush administration to level with the American people and participate fully and openly in the congressional hearings."

In the second release, Reid's office issued a "fact check" on Hayden's briefing, giving it a C-minus grade and deriding it as "poorly researched."

Hours before Bush's speech, Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, appeared on five morning TV shows to defend the eavesdropping.

"What the president has authorized, this terrorist surveillance program, is absolutely what the American people should expect from their commander in chief," Bartlett told NBC.

Traveling with reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Kansas, White House press secretary Scott McClellan criticized "some Democratic leaders that have continued to engage in misleading, false attacks about this vital tool."


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