WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday went on the offensive in making his case for continuing the hard fight in the War on Terror and using every tool available to protect the American people.
In defending his decision to invade Iraq and take the fight to the enemy, Bush also made his case for allowing the National Security Agency to listen in on phone or e-mail conversations of people inside the United States with known Al Qaeda terrorists. Bush has argued both the necessity and constitutionality of the controversial program, which he calls a "terrorist surveillance program," particularly in a time of war.
"If [terrorists] are making a call to the United States, we need to know why, to protect you," Bush said, adding that despite criticism of the program saying otherwise, he did consult with many lawyers and some members of Congress before authorizing the eavesdropping program.
"It's amazing when people say to me, 'Well, he's just breaking the law.' If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?" Bush said. "Federal courts have consistently ruled that a president has authority under the Constitution to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance against our enemies. Predecessors of mine have used that same constitutional authority."
After the president's speech, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., responded that the president needs to seek congressional approval for such programs.
"If the president needs more powers to protect the American people from terrorism, he should come to Congress to modify current laws, not act arrogantly and unilaterally," Kennedy said in a written statement. "Our country faces new kinds of threats today, but congressional and judicial oversight should not be abandoned. We need a thorough investigation to determine whether the Administration's intelligence-gathering activities are legal and effective."
During his remarks, Bush said that in the War on Terror, the United States needs good intelligence to light up "the dark corners of the world where these people hide.
"A lot of the decisions I make and the decisions future presidents make will be based on the capacity of our intelligence services," Bush said. "A lull in the action cannot lull us to sleep."
The president's address at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., was in front of a coliseum full of several thousand people, including students, soldiers from nearby Fort Riley and invited guests. He was the third sitting president to deliver the school's Landon Lecture; the first president to do so was Richard Nixon, who also sought to expand domestic wiretapping powers in wartime.
"A lot of us grew up thinking oceans would protect us," Bush said in telling his audience that he will do whatever it takes to protect the nation against what he called an "ideological struggle."
"I knew right after Sept. 11, though, the attack would begin to fade from people's memories. Who wants to go through life thinking you're going to get hit again? … I want to assure you and our fellow Americans I'm not going to put it in the past … for me, it's not an isolated incident, I understand there's still an enemy who lurks out there."
Bush also defended the USA Patriot Act and called on Congress to permanently reauthorize those provisions that are scheduled to sunset on Feb. 3.
"I want you to know that this Patriot Act is under constant review and there has been no documented cases of abuses of the Patriot Act," Bush said.
Although Congress revisited the sunsetting provisions a few months ago, lawmakers only extended those provisions until Feb. 3.
"That's not good enough for the American people," Bush said. "When [Congress gets] back there, they need to be sure to extend all aspects of the Patriot Act ... The tools, if they were important after Sept. 11, they're important in February 2006. The enemy has not gone away."
At the center of the wiretap debate is Bush's 2002 executive order in which he authorized the NSA — which traditionally is responsible for monitoring overseas communications — to monitor what the White House says is a limited number of calls involving individuals inside the United States and those believed to be linked to Al Qaeda. These calls are not monitored if both caller and recipient are inside the United States, only if one of the parties involved in the communication is located overseas, tccording to the White House.
"These are not phone calls within the United States, it's a phone call of an Al Qaeda, known Al Qaeda suspect making a phone call into the United States," Bush said.
Bush's public relations campaign comes two weeks before congressional hearings to examine the top-secret program, first disclosed last month by The New York Times, are set to begin. Critics have said the president broke the law by authorizing the eavesdropping without a judge's approval and by failing to consult fully with Congress. They also say the president should not be circumventing the super-secret FISA court, which is usually consulted when it comes to wiretaps authorized under to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
"FISA court procedure is inadequate when it comes to this type of activity," presidential adviser Dan Bartlett told FOX News on Monday. "The FISA court does play a critical role. I want to stress that. We use it to its fullest extent. But the type of activities, intelligence activity, surveillance of the enemies that's happening at the National Security Agency is in a way that's different from what the FISA envisioned and requires a lot more agility and speed."
The White House argues that a congressional resolution passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks gave him the authority to do whatever he felt necessary to protect the country in a time of war.
The Justice Department has launched a probe into who leaked details of the program to the Times.
Bartlett made a pitch for the surveillance program Monday morning on network television news shows and argued that despite lawmakers' criticisms, White House officials did appropriately consult with those who needed to know.
"We consulted at the highest levels of the leadership and the intelligence committees, both Republican and Democrats, Senate and House," Bartlett told FOX News. "And the very conversation came up as to whether we should go and try to change law and the fact of the matter is, during those consultations, the conclusion was 'no,' the president had the authority to do what he was doing, the program was vital to the security of the American people. So we went forward, continuing to brief them as appropriate."
Polls show the country is largely split on the program along party lines and Congress has largely followed that trend. Many lawmakers argue that Bush needs to better keep them in the loop on such programs.
"The president's program on surveillance is an essential program to help keep America safe," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich. "We've got some disagreements on exactly where we move from here, how many people are briefed on the program."
Hoekstra told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that in the 15 months that he has been chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he has been briefed on the program four times.
Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, however, takes a different view.
"I believe you need to protect the United States of America. I also believe you need to protect the Constitution. I don't think they're at odds with each other. You can do this and not violate the law. The president has violated the law, period," Kerry said.
White House spokesman Scott McCllelan on Sunday blasted Democrats for criticizing the program only after it was leaked to the media and claimed that party leaders were notified about it.
"The NSA's terrorist surveillance program is targeted at Al Qaeda communications coming into or going out of the United States. It is a limited, hot pursuit effort by our intelligence community to detect and prevent attacks. Senate Democrats continue to engage in misleading and outlandish charges about this vital tool that helps us do exactly what the 9/11 commission said we needed to do — connect the dots," McCllelan said. "Such irresponsible accusations will not keep us from acting to stay a step ahead of a deadly enemy that is determined to strike America again."
On Wednesday, Bush will visit the NSA at its Fort Meade, Md., headquarters. Gen. Michael Hayden said the NSA program was more effective than the FISA system because investigators were able to target suspected communications if they had "reason to believe" that someone is connected to Al Qaeda, rather than the "probable cause" standard required by the FISA court. The difference, he said, is that the detection methods don't target individuals but trap communications. The probable cause standard, on the other hand, relates to individuals.
Hayden made clear NSA has often used FISA, especially after Sept. 11, but that in some cases, it is not as effective.
"The purpose of all of this is not to collect reams of intelligence, but to detect and prevent attacks. The intelligence community has neither the time, the resources nor the legal authority to read communications that aren't likely to protect us. And NSA has no interest in doing so. These are communications that we have reason to believe are Al Qaeda communications," Hayden said.
He also noted that in addition to numerous Justice Department lawyers having said the new program was legal, three senior lawyers at NSA were separately asked about the legality of it before it began. They all said that it was legal and he noted these were people who had rejected some techniques in the past and were not people in the habit of "giving hall passes."
Hayden argued that had the NSA program been in place before the Sept. 11 attacks, the government may had been able to identify the hijackers before they struck.
"You know, I actually find this a little odd. After all the findings of the 9/11 commission and other bodies about the failure to share intelligence, I'm up here feeling like I have to explain pushing data to those who might be able to use it," he said.
Bush: Saddam Had to Go
The president reiterated that his decision to oust former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was the right one for the best of not just the United States, but the world. He added that he did not haphazardly send troops into war.
"Committing U.S. troops in harm's way is the last decision for a president … you all have got to understand I did not make that decision lightly," he said, arguing that the consequences not to depose of Saddam would have been far worse.
Before the president's speech on Monday, the former head of the NSA, who was in charge at the time the president authorized the wiretaps, spoke at the National Press Club in Washington in defense of his agency's work.
Saddam was an "immediate threat" because he was firing at U.S. and British planes around Iraq, and Iraq was declared a state sponsor of terror declared by the U.S. government, Bush said. The "biggest threat" to the world is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists, he added.
"The world thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, it wasn't just me or my administration," Bush said, noting that the Clinton administration also agreed with that premise as did other governments around the world. History also showed that Saddam was willing to — and did — use such weapons on his own people.
The president also noted that the U.N. Security Council passed several resolutions threatening the use of force unless Saddam complied with international weapons inspections and other requests; those resolutions — which were passed unanimously — were not enforced.
"I want this body to be effective, it's important for the world when it speaks that people listen," Bush said of the United Nations.
Bush Doesn't Sweat Taking the Heat
The Q&A portion of Monday's event is a new format for Bush that seems to be working for him.
The president has been taking questions from audience members in recent speeches, and the White House says none has been pre-screened. It's a throwback to the folksy style on the campaign trail that helped him win re-election and a departure from the heavily scripted speeches that were the norm last year.
At Monday's speech, An Iraqi Kurdish woman in the audience stood up and said she has two female members of her family in the new Iraqi Parliament, and had several of her family members killed by Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction on the Kurds. The woman yelled out praises upon Bush and urged the public not to question the administration's decision.
"Please stop questioning the administration and their decision, it was the best decision anyone could take, freeing 27 million people," she said.
Bush has taken a wide variety of questions in several appearances during the last six weeks. And many of the people he has called on have fawned over him, thanking him for his wartime leadership, saying they pray for him and bring best wishes from other fans in their family who couldn't be there.
"It's always good to have a plant in every audience," Bush joked last week in Sterling, Va., after a woman rose and said she was proud of him.
But he has gotten some tough questions, too, such as the one from a woman in Philadelphia last month who challenged the administration's linkage of the Iraq war to the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush said Saddam Hussein was a threat and at the time was widely believed to have weapons of mass destruction — which later proved false.
In response to another question in Philadelphia, he estimated 30,000 Iraqis had died in the war, the first time he publicly put a number on Iraqi deaths. In Louisville, Ky., he signaled that after initial reservations, he was resigned to congressional hearings into his domestic spying program as long as they don't aid the enemy.
He has spoken about one of the worst things about being president — exposing his daughters to public scrutiny — and one of the best — impressing his childhood friends with dinner at the White House.
"It's a great honor, pretty awe-inspiring deal," Bush said in Virginia. "They walk in there and, kind of (say), 'What are you doing here, Bush?'"
He also ruled out any future run for office by his wife, Laura, in response to a plea from a fan who called her "one of the best first ladies we've ever had." And he disclosed that Mrs. Bush designed the rug in the Oval Office.
"I said, I want it to say 'optimistic person comes here to work every day,'" the president said. "It was the strategic thought for the rug. She figured out the colors. And it looks like a sun, with nice, open colors."
FOX News' Liza Porteus and James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.