Emphasizing that "we are at war with an enemy who wants to hurt us again," President Bush on Sunday strongly defended the domestic eavesdropping program that began in 2002, and repeated his contention that the disclosure of its existence had caused the country "great harm."
In a brief exchange with reporters after visiting wounded soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center, Bush said the surveillance, conducted by the National Security Agency, targeted known Al Qaeda members or associates and involved intercepts of only a few numbers in the United States.
"If somebody from Al Qaeda is calling you, we'd like to know why," he said. "We're at war with a bunch of coldblooded killers."
The NSA is normally required to seek permission, on a case-by-case basis, from a special panel of federal judges before conducting any type of surveillance within the United States.
Bush contends that the congressional authorization to use force against Al Qaeda, passed a week after the Sept. 11 attacks, enabled him to approve NSA intercepts of telephone calls and e-mails without seeking court orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Bush said Sunday that the program, which the New York Times revealed last month, had been repeatedly vetted by Justice Department officials and members of Congress.
"This program has been reviewed, constantly reviewed, by people throughout my administration. And it still is reviewed," he said.
He also clarified remarks he had made in April 2004, in which he said that all wiretaps required a court order and that "when we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so."
Asked about those statements Sunday, Bush said: "I was talking about roving wiretaps, I believe, involved in the Patriot Act. This is different from the NSA program. The NSA program is a necessary program."
The president's comments came after he was asked about a newspaper report that a top Justice Department official had questioned the legality of certain aspects of the surveillance, resulting in its temporary suspension. He avoided answering directly and instead raised a spirited defense of the program.
"We're at war, and as commander in chief, I've got to use the resources at my disposal, within the law, to protect the American people," he said.
The New York Times reported Sunday that in March 2004, administration officials made an emergency visit to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's hospital room after his deputy, James B. Comey, who was serving as acting attorney general during Ashcroft's absence, refused to approve continuation of the program. Ashcroft was recovering from gallbladder surgery and had been in intensive care under tight security, the paper said.
Comey could not be reached Sunday for comment.
Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the report of Comey's refusal to give his approval heightened concerns about the program.
He said that when people like Comey "had real doubts about the program, it calls into question the way the president and vice president went about changing it."
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), has said his panel will hold hearings into the eavesdropping program, and Schumer said he would ask Specter to call Comey, Ashcroft and other administration officials as witnesses.
But citing widespread discussion of the issue, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose sessions are usually closed to the public, was the more proper venue for hearings.
"We're already talking about this entirely too much out in public
The Justice Department has announced that it is investigating who leaked information about the top-secret program to reporters.
"The fact that somebody leaked this program causes great harm to the United States," Bush said Sunday.
"There's an enemy out there. They read newspapers, they listen to what you write, they listen to what you put on the air, and they react."
Schumer told Fox that the Justice Department investigation should determine whether the leaker was seeking to disclose damaging information or to reveal potentially illegal activity.
"There are differences between felons and whistle-blowers, and we ought to wait till the investigation occurs to decide what happened," he said.
Roche reported from Washington and Chen from San Antonio.