WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday defended the use of a domestic eavesdropping program and called for Democrats to stop their "delaying tactics" and reauthorize the controversial Patriot Act.
In a year-end news conference at the White House, Bush called the leak of the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program, first reported in The New York Times last Friday, a "shameful act" disclosed in a time of war. The report said Bush had authorized the NSA to conduct surveillance of e-mails and phone calls of some individuals in the United States without court warrants.
"The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy," Bush told reporters. "This program has targeted those with known links to Al Qaeda."
The program will continue, Bush said, adding that he has reauthorized it more than 30 times. "And I will continue to do so for so long as our nation faces the continued threat of an enemy that wants to kill our American citizens."
The Justice Department likely will investigate who leaked information about the NSA program, the president added. A request for that investigation must come from the NSA itself.
On the eavesdropping issue, Bush said "absolutely" he has the legal authority to order such surveillance, citing Article 2 of the Constitution, which he said gives him the responsibility and authority to deal with an enemy who declares war against the United States. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Congress also gave him the authority to use force against Al Qaeda, he noted, to tackle an "unconventional enemy," some of whom lived in U.S. communities.
"We need to recognize that dealing with Al Qaeda is not simply a matter of law enforcement. It requires dealing with an enemy that declared war against the United States of America," Bush said.
"After Sept. 11, one question my administration had to answer was, how, using the authority I have, how do we effectively detect enemies hiding in our midst and prevent them from striking [us] again? We know that a two-minute phone conversation from someone linked to Al Qaeda here and to Al Qaeda overseas can cost millions of American lives," he added, saying some of the Sept. 11 hijackers made several phone calls overseas before the attacks.
He noted that the Sept. 11 commission — charged with probing the intelligence failures surrounding the attacks four years ago that left 3,000 people dead — said the United States intelligence community needs to better "connect the dots" before the enemy can attack again.
Bush: We're Protecting Civil Liberties
The press event, Bush's ninth full-fledged news conference of the year, came one day after the president spoke to the nation in a prime-time television address from the Oval Office about the war in Iraq, urging patience and declaring that the United States was winning the battle.
On Monday, Bush said the surveillance program, which took up the majority of the press conference, is reviewed "constantly" to ensure it is effective and not infringing on Americans' civil liberties. Congressional leaders have been briefed on the program more than a dozen times, Bush continued, denying the accusation that the program is a classic result of "unchecked power" in the executive branch.
The program is limited to those linked to Al Qaeda or other known terror groups, and for calls made from the United States to somewhere overseas and vice versa, Bush said. Calls between two U.S. cities are not monitored unless an order is granted by a secret court under the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, through a system that has been set up since the 1970s.
"I can fully understand why members of Congress are expressing concerns about civil liberties, I know that, and I share the same concerns," Bush said. "I want to make sure the American people understand ... we have an obligation to protect you and while we're doing that, we're protecting your civil liberties."
When asked by one reporter if he could give an example of an attack that was thwarted by the eavesdropping program, Bush said: "No, I'm not going to talk about that because it would help give the enemy notification or perhaps signal them methods and uses and sources. We're not going to do that."
To highlight the importance of keeping the program details secret, Bush said that before the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. intelligence community knew the types of phones being used for phone conversations by Usama bin Laden. But then details of the intercepts were leaked.
"We were listening to him, he was using a type of cell-phone, or a phone ... and somebody put it in a newspaper that this was the type of device he was using to communicate with his team and he changed [phones]," Bush said. "I don't know how to make the point more clear that anytime we give up … revealing sources, methods and what we use the information for, simply says to the enemy: Change."
But news of the program caused an uproar in Congress, with Democrats and some Republicans calling for an investigation into it.
"We will not tolerate a president who believes that he is the sole decision-maker when it comes to the policies that this country should have in the war against terror and the policies we should have to protect the rights of completely innocent Americans," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. "He is the president, not a king."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he intends to hold hearings. "They talk about constitutional authority," Specter said. "There are limits as to what the president can do."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told FOX News on Monday that there's "no doubt these intercepts can be crucially important to defending America."
Sessions noted that after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush said he would use every legal power he could to prevent another attack, and no attack has been pulled off on U.S. soil in four years. "He certainly acted with legal advice" and the Senate Intelligence Committee was briefed on the issue, he added.
Added Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "I happen to believe that some of the intercepts since Sept. 11 probably have thwarted, saved some lives ... we're at war. We want to protect our constitutional rights ... but we're at war."
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Gen. Michael Hayden, the deputy national intelligence director who was head of the NSA when the program began, said Monday that the NSA program had yielded intelligence results that would not have been available otherwise in the War on Terror.
Gonzales stressed that it is not a blanket spying program of ordinary Americans but of overseas communications of potential Al Qaeda suspects in the United States.
"We believe Congress has given us that authority," Gonzales told FOX News. "The folks that are operating this program tell me that we do not have the speed and agility that we need [with FISA] … to deal with this new kind of enemy."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote to her Democratic colleagues, saying she expressed her concerns both verbally and in a classified letter to the administration. She said the administration "made clear" it didn't think congressional notification or approval was required.
Saturday, Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democrats sent a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill, requesting hearings on the issue and the appointment of a panel of outside legal experts to assist during those hearings. She said Rep. Jane Harman, the Ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the administration reversed its decision to brief the committee on the details of the NSA activities to which the president referred in his radio address.
"The refusal to provide the committee with the information necessary to discharge its oversight responsibilities is reminiscent of an administration directive in October 2001, which severely restricted the flow of information from the intelligence community to the House and Senate intelligence committees," Pelosi said in the letter.
"We all agree that the president must have the best possible intelligence to protect the American people. That intelligence, however, must be produced in a manner consistent with our Constitution and our laws, and in a manner that reflects our values as a nation to protect the American people and our freedoms."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the surveillance program raises accountability concerns.
"A wiretap that short-circuits our laws and safeguards is no more effective than a legal wiretap," said the Vermont senator. "It will not get you better intelligence and it will not make us any safer as a nation. It only excuses the government from having to justify its conduct through constitutional checks and balances."
Others, however, say there may be more hype over the surveillance issue than necessary.
"I think a lot of people are hyperventilating right now and they need to take a deep breath, calm down and think about what's best for America," said former Mideast ambassador Robert Jordan. "No one's talking about sawing off the branches of the Constitution."
Dems: Bush 'Playing Politics' With Patriot Act
Bush also blasted those senators — some of which were Republican — who held up reauthorization of 16 expiring provisions of the Patriot Act on Friday.
Critics say they were willing to extend the provisions for three or six months but will not permanently extend them before they can be further studied to ensure they are not infringing on individuals' civil liberties.
The provisions, which expire Dec. 31, authorize roving wiretaps, which allow investigators to monitor multiple devices to keep a target from evading detection by switching phones or computers, and secret warrants for books, records and other items from businesses, hospitals and organizations such as libraries. They also give expanded abilities to share secret grand jury information with foreign governments; and watch terror suspects longer than other federal laws provide.
The rest of the overall act was made permanent in 2001, when Congress first voted on it.
Saying the Patriot Act has helped tear down legal and bureaucratic barriers to sharing intelligence information between U.S. agencies, Bush noted that many of the senators now filibustering the act voted for it in 2001.
"These senators need to explain why they thought the Patriot Act was a vital tool after the Sept. 11 attacks but now feel it's no longer necessary," Bush said, adding that the filibustering lawmakers "must stop their delaying tactics." "It is inexcusable for the United States Senate to let the Patriot Act expire."
He added: "In the War on Terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment."
But Democrats charged that the president is "playing politics" with the Patriot Act.
"Instead of playing partisan politics and setting up false attack ads, the White House should join in trying to improve the Patriot Act," said Leahy. "Our goal is to mend it, not to end it. If the White House is unwilling to fix it now, they should support the Sununu-Leahy three-month extension, which 40 senators have cosponsored, to give us to time to make this a better bill. We ask the president to reconsider his opposition to briefly extending the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act until these improvements are made."
Many Democrats support the three-month extension but the White House has said Bush will veto anything less than a permanent one.
"Let's be clear about who's killing the Patriot Act — President Bush and the Republican leadership," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said. "It's time for the president to put politics aside and national security first … It would be irresponsible and a dereliction of duty for the administration to allow these provisions to expire."
On Iraq, Bush again reiterated themes he has voiced in the past two weeks, urging patience with the fledgling democratic progress there.
About 11 million Iraqis went to the polls to cast votes for a 275-member Parliament last week. The high turnout and relatively low level of violence during the election marked what many say is a new beginning for Iraq.
"In a nation that once lived by the whims of a brutal dictator, the Iraqi people now enjoy constitutionally-protected freedom and their leaders now derive their powers from the consent of the governed," Bush said Monday. "The Iraqi people still face many challenges ... the formation of the government will take time as the Iraqis work to build consensus."
He noted that the new government must prioritize the security, reconstruction, economic reform and national uniformity once it assembles.
"The work ahead requires the patience of the Iraqi people and the patience and support of America and our coalition partners," Bush said.
When asked again whether he would consider some sort of timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, Bush again refused to give such a timeframe, saying it shouldn't the political whims of the hour that dictate U.S. military strategy and he will take his cues from military commanders on the ground.
"I can't think of anything more dispiriting to a kid risking his or her life to see a decision made based on politics," Bush said.
Bush also noted that the economy is getting stronger, pointing to the fact that more jobs are being added, unemployment is down to 5 percent and home ownership is high. He said he wants to see rebuilt the Gulf Coast areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, specifically in Mississippi and New Orleans.
When questioned about the race issue, which was brought out of the shadows after the hurricane, Bush said he's troubled at the thought some think he's not concerned about race and disparities that may exist between people of different color.
"One of the jobs of the president is to help people reconcile and move forward and unite," Bush said. "One of the most hurtful things I can hear is, 'Bush doesn't care about African Americans,' for example. First, it's not true and secondly, I believe — I gotta do a better job of communicating, I guess, to certain folks."
He urged Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and promised to sign it.
Bush also acknowledged that a pre-war failure of intelligence claiming Saddam had weapons of mass destruction has complicated the United States' ability to confront other potential emerging threats, such as Iran.
"Where it is going to be most difficult to make the case is in the public arena," Bush said. "People will say, if we're trying to make the case on Iran, 'Well, if the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore, how can we trust the intelligence on Iran?"'