President Bush, facing fresh criticism about how he has waged the war on terrorism, acknowledged Saturday that after the Sept. 11 attacks he authorized a secret eavesdropping program in the U.S. that operates without court warrants.
He said the program was vital to saving American lives and that he had no intention of stopping it.
In an unusual live radio broadcast from the White House, he detailed what he described as a “highly classified” program to root out terrorists. He defended the surveillance plan as legal, saying his authority to approve it came from his constitutional powers as commander in chief.
“In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on our nation, I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations,” the president said.
“Its purpose is to detect and prevent terrorist attacks against the United States, our friends and allies,” he said.
Bush said that top officials at the Justice Department and the National Security Agency reviewed the program about every 45 days and that he had personally signed off on reauthorizations of surveillance activities more than 30 times.
But questions mounted about the legality of the program, and some members of Congress said the plan was an abuse of power.
Bush’s acknowledgment that he authorized the wiretaps was a “shocking admission,” Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis) said.
“The president does not get to pick and choose which laws he wants to follow. He is a president, not a king,” Feingold said.
In his address, Bush said he kept congressional leaders informed about the plan, and on Saturday some said they had known about it.
Still, members of Congress, including Republicans, began to call for congressional hearings to learn more.
Bush’s speech followed a story in Friday’s New York Times -- confirmed by other media outlets -- that described how he had authorized the National Security Agency to monitor the international telephone calls and e-mails of hundreds of people in the U.S. without court approval in an effort to identify links with terrorists abroad.
The surveillance is of concern because Bush bypassed a special court that Congress established in the 1970s as the exclusive arbiter of requests to conduct domestic intelligence-gathering.
The periodic review of the program involves only members of the executive branch, such as Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers.
Bush’s disclosure of the program was striking for an administration with a reputation for reticence regarding its inner workings.
In the radio address, Bush said sternly that information about the program had been “improperly provided to news organizations.”
“As a result,” he said, “our enemies have learned information they should not have.”
Bush’s discussion of the program was a dramatic turnabout for a president who tends to stick to his plan: On Friday, he told a television interviewer that speaking out could jeopardize national security.
A senior administration official, who required anonymity to discuss White House planning, said the president decided to address the public because officials believed that “improper disclosure” of the program “is harmful to our nation’s security and puts us at greater risk.”
“We discussed carefully -- now that information had been disclosed -- what could be said,” the official said Saturday. “We are directly taking on critics.”
The program adds fuel to an ongoing debate over presidential powers in dealing with the terrorist threat.
News of the eavesdropping followed media reports about a month ago that the U.S. government used secret prisons in Eastern Europe. Also, the administration had been under fire for refusing to back legislation that would ban cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees by any U.S. agency; last week, the White House reversed course and agreed to the measure.
Adding to the administration’s woes, senators Friday blocked renewal of the Patriot Act, the signature law that the administration has used in fighting alleged terrorists in the courts. The law had been passed overwhelmingly shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, but critics have said that some of its provisions allow the federal government to trample on civil liberties.
Bush began his address Saturday by lashing out at the Senate opponents of the act’s renewal, calling their filibustering “irresponsible.”
The measure’s key sections expire Dec. 31. Bush said: “In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment.”
Some Republicans staunchly defended Bush’s authorization of the eavesdropping program and his decision not to seek warrants from the court established by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) knew of the program and considers it essential, according to the committee’s communications director, Jamal Ware.
“He also believes it has been helpful in keeping America safe from terrorists,” Ware said.
But Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the program’s authority to intercept communications in the U.S. needed to be clarified. She said she was asking the National Security Agency for a “full briefing” on the matter.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who was the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee when Bush first authorized the wiretapping program, said she had been informed of it shortly after it was created and had expressed concern about it.
Pelosi said that although the president “must have the best possible intelligence to protect the American people ... intelligence must be produced in a manner consistent with the United States Constitution and our laws.”
She said Bush’s radio address raised “serious questions as to what the activities were and whether the activities were lawful.”
Among the lawmakers who acknowledged they had known about the program was House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), asked at a Capitol Hill news conference whether he had been briefed on the wiretapping, replied: “I have been kept abreast of programs that it is appropriate for the majority leader to be briefed on.”
Bush said in his speech that the surveillance had “helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad.” He did not provide specifics.
The director of Syracuse University’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, law professor William C. Banks, said spying of the sort that Bush authorized should have been reviewed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Banks also considered it cold comfort that Bush had said the surveillance program was regularly reviewed by administration lawyers.
“That review is nice. But what are the standards? What are they measuring against? Some concept of executive power not written down anywhere? Not endorsed by any court? It is what you want it to be,” he said.
In remarks on the Senate floor Saturday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) attacked the New York Times for publishing the story the day the Senate was considering renewing much of the Patriot Act. He noted that two senators had cited the report as a factor in deciding to vote against renewing the law.
Times staff writer Peter G. Gosselin contributed to this report.