WASHINGTON – President Bush defended the scope of the government's domestic surveillance programs that have riled privacy advocates and threatened to impede the Senate confirmation of Bush's new pick to lead the CIA.
"The privacy of all Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. "The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. We are not trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."
Bush's broadcast comes two days after news reports revealed the ultra-secret National Security Agency was collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans.
USA Today reported Thursday that the NSA was building a database with the help of three major U.S. telephone companies — a revelation that highlights the problem of balancing American civil liberties with efforts to protect citizens from terrorist attacks.
Without specifically confirming the database effort, Bush defended the intelligence activities he has authorized, saying they are focused on Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates. He reiterated that they are lawful and that appropriate members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, have been briefed on the surveillance activities.
"Americans expect their government to do everything in its power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties," Bush said. "That is exactly what we are doing. And so far, we have been successful in preventing another attack on our soil."
The NSA was using the data to analyze calling patterns in order to detect and track suspected terrorist activity, according to information the White House provided to Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo. "Telephone customers' names, addresses and other personal information have not been handed over to NSA as part of this program," Allard said.
Two New Jersey public interest lawyers, however, sued Verizon Communications Inc. on Friday for $5 billion, claiming the phone carrier violated privacy laws by turning over customers' records. The lawsuit asks the court to stop Verizon from supplying the information without a warrant or consent of the subscriber.
"This is the largest and most vast intrusion of civil liberties we've ever seen in the United States," attorney Bruce Afran said.
In his radio address, Bush also sought to separate the debate about the NSA program from the upcoming confirmation hearings for Gen. Michael Hayden, his nominee to replace Porter Goss as director of the CIA. Bush noted that Hayden, who formerly directed the NSA, was unanimously confirmed last year for his current post as deputy national intelligence director.
The president called his choice "supremely qualified" to be the CIA's next chief. He ticked off Hayden's involvement in recent reforms of the U.S. intelligence community and his experience as a former Pentagon and White House official and in the Bulgarian embassy during the Cold War.
"Mike knows our intelligence community from the ground up," Bush said.
Lawmakers have been pressing the Bush administration for information about the NSA's database of telephone records in advance of confirmation hearings scheduled next Thursday for the former NSA director.
"He's going to have to explain what his role was," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said Friday, while expressing complete confidence in Hayden's government service. "To start with, did he put that program forward? Whose idea was it? Why was it started?"
Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner of Virginia, have said that Hayden was relying on the advice of top government lawyers when the programs began.
But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., an Intelligence Committee member, said he now questions Hayden's credibility. "The American people have got to know that when the person who heads the CIA makes a statement that they are getting the full picture," Wyden said.
NSA has been working with three major U.S. telephone companies — Verizon, AT&T Corp. and BellSouth Corp. The three complied with the request to turn over phone records shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, according to the USA Today report.
Telecommunications giant Qwest refused to provide the government with access to telephone records of its 15 million customers after deciding the request violated privacy law, a lawyer for a former company executive said Friday.
In a written statement, the attorney for Joseph Nacchio, the former Qwest chief executive officer, said the government approached the company in the fall of 2001 seeking access to the phone records of Qwest customers, with neither a warrant nor approval from a special court established to handle surveillance matters.
"Mr. Nacchio concluded that these requests violated the privacy requirements of the Telecommunications Act," attorney Herbert J. Stern said from his Newark, N.J., office.
Nacchio told Qwest officials to refuse the NSA requests, which kept coming until Nacchio left the company in June 2002, his lawyer said.