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Cheney Defends Domestic Spying

Times Staff Writer

President Bush’s decision to bypass court review and authorize domestic wiretapping by executive order was part of a concerted effort to rebuild presidential powers weakened in the 1970s as a result of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday.

Returning from a trip to the Middle East, Cheney said that threats facing the country required that the president’s authority under the Constitution be “unimpaired.”

“Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both during the 1970s, served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area,” Cheney told reporters traveling with him on Air Force Two. “Especially in the day and age we live in ... the president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy.”

Cheney’s remarks were recorded by reporters traveling with him and disseminated by the White House under an official pool arrangement.

Cheney dismissed the idea that Americans were concerned about a potential abuse of power by the administration, saying that any backlash would probably punish the president’s critics, not Bush.

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“The president and I believe very deeply that there is a hell of a threat,” Cheney said, calculating that “the vast majority” of Americans supported the administration’s surveillance policies.

“And so if there’s a backlash pending, I think the backlash is going to be against those who are suggesting somehow we shouldn’t take these steps in order to defend the country.”

On Capitol Hill, however, calls for a congressional investigation escalated, with a group of Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee asking to join hearings scheduled by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she had written to several constitutional scholars to ask whether Bush had committed an impeachable offense by ordering the National Security Agency in 2002 to engage in surveillance within the United States without a court order.

Lawmakers continued to trade claims and accusations over whether they were informed about the spy program by the administration, whether they properly registered civil liberties objections, and whether their objections mattered.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday that he wrote Cheney after one briefing in 2003 and expressed concern about the surveillance.

But Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that Rockefeller had misrepresented his own views about the program.

“For the nearly three years [Rockefeller] has served as vice chairman, I have heard no objection from him about this valuable program,” Roberts said in a statement. “Now, when it appears to be politically advantageous, Sen. Rockefeller has chosen to release his 2 1/2 -year-old letter. Forgive me if I find this to be inconsistent and a bit disingenuous.”

Rockefeller responded sharply. “From the first day I learned of this program, I made my concerns known to the vice president and to others who were briefed,” he said. “The White House never addressed my concerns.

“The real question is whether the administration lived up to its statutory requirement to fully inform Congress and allow for adequate oversight and debate. The simple answer is no.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), one of the congressional leaders who was briefed about the program, asked the National Security Agency on Tuesday to declassify a letter she wrote several years ago expressing concern.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted that lawmakers had been informed of the program but declined to answer questions about whether members of Congress could act in any way on the information.

“We believe it’s important to brief members of Congress, the relevant leaders,” McClellan said, adding that Congress was “an independent branch of government. Yes, they have oversight roles to play.” When asked how lawmakers could have acted on the oversight, McClellan responded: “You should ask members of Congress that question.”

Some congressional Republicans defended Bush but others said they had doubts. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) joined three Democrats in a call for an investigation.

“At no time, to our knowledge, did any administration representative ask the Congress to consider amending existing law to permit electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists without a warrant,” the five senators wrote.

New rounds of criticism followed reports Tuesday of comments Bush made last year in which he seemed to assure his audience that the government conducted wiretaps only with court approval.

“Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretaps, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order,” the president said in a speech in Buffalo, N.Y. on April 20, 2004, in which he discussed enactment of the Patriot Act.

“Nothing has changed, by the way,” Bush continued in the speech. “When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so. It’s important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.”

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said it was “time for the president to tell the truth.”

“Why is it that President Bush went in front of the American people and said that a wiretap ‘requires a court order’ after having approved a wiretap program without a court order two years earlier?”

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Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.


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