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Inside the nation's terrorist surveillance HQ

Bush at the National Security Agency, with Vice President Dick Cheney and Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend to the left. White House photo by David Bohrer.

by David Nitkin

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President Bush urged Congress not to backtrack on recent changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act during a visit to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade in Maryland today.

With tight security befitting a visit of the president to the clandenstine campus where cryptographers and computers decifer messages from foreign governments and terrorists, Bush toured the round-the-clock nerve center of NSA with Vice President Dick Cheney, national intelligence chief Mike McConnell and other administration officials.

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Reporters and photographers were briefly allowed in tothe high-tech National Threat Operations Center, where Bush chatted with employees manning semicircular rows of computers. The large high-resolution display screens along the walls provided most of the light in the room, and a sign noted that the equipment was in "unclassified mode."

In brief comments outside the center, Bush expressed confidence that NSA staff was working hard as a debate rages around them about whether federal law should allow warrantless data collection of U.S. citizens who are in cotact with people overseas.

"You don't have to worry about the motivation of the people out here," Bush said, speaking of the 20,000 or so NSA employees who work in Anne Arundel County. "What we do have to worry about is to make sure that they have all the tools they need to do their jobs."

Under pressure from the Bush administration, Congress adopted revisions to the 1970s-era surveillance law in August, with Democratic leaders immediately expressing concerns that the changes went too far and encroached on civil liberties. Because of those concerns, the changes are scheduled to expire in February. The president said today that Congress should make them permanent.

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"The problem is the law expires on February 1st -- that's 135 days from today," Bush said. "The threat from al Qaeda is not going to expire in 135 days."

The surveillance law and the administration's data-collection program have been under intense security since the revelation of programs that were collecting vast amounts of telephone records from U.S. residents without a court order.

Congress this week resumed hearings on the surveillance law, with Democrats promising changes to offer greater protections for U.S. citizens who could be subject to eavesdropping or communications intercepts from spies gathering information from people overseas. The concern is that if email or mobile telephone communications from overseas to the U.S. are being monitered, U.S. residents could be subjects of surveillance without their knowledge -- and without a court warrant.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat who heads the House intelligence committee, said this week that he wanted a revised measure completed by next month, and accused the White House of pushing measures that encroached on civil liberties.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan, said lawmakers were fully briefed on how the Bush administration was collecting information on terrorists.

"This is not the Bush terrorist surveillance program," Hoekstra said. "This is the Bush-congressional terrorist surveillance program, because congressional leadership was involved in this process from the beginning."

Bush today also asked Congress to adopt liability protections for telecommunications companies that cooperated with the government's warrantless surveillance program.

David Nitkin covers the White House for the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune Co. newspaper.

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