CAMBRIDGE, Md. – President Bush defended his warrantless eavesdropping program Friday, saying during what he thought were private remarks that he concluded that spying on Americans was necessary to fill a gap in the United States' security.
"I wake up every morning thinking about a future attack, and therefore, a lot of my thinking, and a lot of the decisions I make are based upon the attack that hurt us," Bush told the House Republican Caucus, which was in retreat at a luxury resort along the Choptank River on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
The president said he asked the National Security Agency to devise a way to gather intelligence on terrorists' potential activities, and the result was the super-secret spy outfit's program to monitor the international e-mails and phone calls of people inside the United States with suspected ties to terrorists overseas. Bush said lawyers in the White House and at the Justice Department signed off on the program's legality, and "we put constant checks on the program."
"I take my oath of office seriously. I swear to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States," Bush said.
The president's comments on the NSA eavesdropping came after six minutes of remarks intended for public consumption. In them, Bush stroked lawmakers with thanks and gave a gentle push for his 2006 priorities in a scaled-back version of last month's State of the Union address.
"I'm looking forward to working with you. And I'm confident we'll continue the success we have had together," he said. "So I've come to say thanks for your hard work in the past and thanks for what we're going to do to make this country continue to be the greatest country on the face of the Earth."
He indirectly pressed his call — difficult in an election year — for Congress to approve $70 billion in savings from benefit programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and payments to farmers over the next five years, and to cut dozens of other programs that the White House has determined don't produce results.
"It's hard work, to cut out and cut back on programs that don't work," Bush said. "Every program sounds beautiful in Washington, D.C. until you start analyzing the results."
Reporters then were ushered out — "I support the free press, let's just get them out of the room," Bush said — so the president could speak privately to his fellow Republicans.
"I want to share some thoughts with you before I answer your questions," said Bush, unaware that microphones were still on and were allowing those back in the White House press room to eavesdrop on his eavesdropping defense. "First of all, I expect this conversation we're about to have to stay in the room. I know that's impossible in Washington."
That was not to be — and it was telling that the president chose the controversial NSA program as the first topic to raise out of reporters' earshot. Even so, there was no substantive difference between those statements and the series of public speeches he has given recently on the program.
The eavesdropping program has come under fire from Republicans as well as Democrats. They argue that Bush already has the authority to monitor such communications through existing law that requires a warrant from a secret court set up to act quickly, or even after the fact. Bush has argued that the system isn't nimble enough.
The titular head of the Republican Party faced a House GOP Caucus in turmoil.
With most of Congress up for re-election in November, the House GOP is just off a bruising fight to replace former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is grappling with reforming the time-honored congressional tradition of funding individual pet projects known as earmarks, and faces potentially damaging revelations in an ongoing public corruption investigation centered on a high-flying lobbyist with extensive ties to Republicans.
Though the lawmakers gave Bush a standing ovation and interrupted his remarks several times with applause, questions in the private setting typically are sharper than in public get-togethers.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush kept his prepared remarks brief so that he would have extra time for the more freewheeling portion of the discussion, which went on for one hour and 40 minutes. Only the first few minutes of that — before any lawmakers' questions — were heard by reporters.