In Long Address, Bush Defends Spying Program
President Bush said Monday that spying on people in the United States by the National Security Agency and soon-to-expire elements of the Patriot Act were legal means to fight terrorism as he made a public embrace of the programs aimed at turning them to political advantage.
In a speech and question-and-answer session, Bush offered his lengthiest public explanation to date of NSA eavesdropping, which the administration has taken to calling the “terrorist surveillance program” since it was revealed in December.
He said a Supreme Court ruling in June 2004 found that a congressional resolution passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks gave him the authority to act to protect the country from terrorism.
“It means Congress gave me the authority to use necessary force to protect the American people, but it didn’t prescribe the tactics. It said: ‘Mr. President, you’ve got the power to protect us, but we’re not going to tell you how.’
“If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?” he said.
The Senate will hold hearings on the program of monitoring calls without first seeking the approval of a special court.
Bush spoke for an hour and 41 minutes, perhaps his longest speech and question-and-answer session as president.
His audience was made up of residents, students and soldiers from Ft. Riley who nearly filled Bramlage Coliseum, a sports arena at Kansas State University. It is the same campus where in 1970 President Nixon spoke on international terrorism and violent domestic protests, and defended his prosecution of the war in Vietnam.
Bush spoke for almost 45 minutes about the war in Iraq and his anti-terrorism programs, and then took questions covering not only Iraq but student loans, the future of Social Security, beef exports, what he was doing to eliminate nuclear weapons, and the movie “Brokeback Mountain,” which he said he had not seen.
His visit to Kansas coincided with a speech in Washington by Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, deputy director of national intelligence, who vigorously defended the domestic surveillance operation.
Hayden, who was director of the NSA when the program was launched, described it as “targeted and focused.” He disputed suggestions that the NSA was eavesdropping on large volumes of e-mail and telephone traffic.
The speeches kicked off an aggressive effort by the administration to present the eavesdropping as a crucial element in what it called the global war against terrorism. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is expected to speak about the program today, and Bush plans to visit NSA headquarters outside Washington on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the Justice Department made public a 42-page analysis in which it argued that the president’s action rested on the inherent power of his office, and that the post-Sept. 11 congressional resolution confirmed that authority.
Bush said Monday that the program was limited to monitoring phone conversations or e-mails of someone inside the United States and someone beyond its borders in which “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,” he said.
“These are not phone calls within the United States,” he said. “This is a phone call of an Al Qaeda, known Al Qaeda suspect, making a phone call into the United States.”
The debate over the eavesdropping pits post-Sept. 11 concern about terrorism against privacy issues, and the outcome could determine whether the public thinks the administration has gone too far in its efforts to fend off another terrorist attack.
“I’m mindful of your civil liberties, and so I had all kinds of lawyers review the process,” Bush told the Kansas gathering.
Bush also encouraged Congress to extend key sections of the Patriot Act beyond the scheduled Feb. 3 expiration date. He said the measure was under constant review, and that no abuses had been documented.
Critics have said the measure, like the NSA surveillance, violates or comes very close to violating constitutional provisions protecting Americans’ privacy.
Bush declared that the tools necessary to fight terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks were still important. “The enemy has not gone away,” he said.
The administration used the anti-terrorism program as a platform on which Republican candidates could run in the 2002 congressional elections, and Bush used it as the centerpiece of his 2004 reelection campaign.
The president’s top political lieutenants have made it clear, as recently as Friday in back-to-back appearances before the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in the capital, that the party seeks to again use the issue in this year’s elections.
After being reluctant to address the NSA program after it was revealed by the New York Times in December, the administration is presenting it as a measure to be embraced by the public as it seeks to demonstrate differences with Democrats over national security issues.
While polls have shown that the public is evenly divided on whether Bush was correct to pursue the eavesdropping, the public still shows more concern about terrorism than about whether Bush has gone too far in restricting civil liberties.
On Friday, two Democratic senators, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, introduced a resolution challenging the administration’s assertion that the congressional resolution passed shortly after the 2001 attacks gave Bush the authority he needed to avoid court approval.
The resolution, Kennedy said, “says nothing about domestic electronic surveillance.”
He argued that the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act establishing the ground rules for monitoring such communications and a special court to grant warrants for wiretaps provided for criminal prosecution of anyone who failed to comply with the eavesdropping rules.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said that the measure “was created in a different time period” and “didn’t anticipate some of the technological issues that needed to be addressed.”
Hayden, the intelligence official, stressed that the program operated under strict controls within the NSA. After previously saying that NSA shift supervisors could make decisions on domestic eavesdropping, Hayden modified his remarks Monday to say that such decisions were made by a “very small handful” of senior officers at NSA.
“They’re all senior executives, they are all counter-terrorism and Al Qaeda experts,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, among others sharply critical of the program, has said that it is an illegal operation that violates the letter and spirit of the laws governing wiretapping. The Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan agency, said this month the program was in conflict with the law and rested on weak legal arguments.
Times staff writers David G. Savage and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.