WASHINGTON – President Bush insisted Tuesday that the United States does not listen in on domestic telephone conversations among ordinary Americans. But he declined to specifically discuss the government's alleged compiling of phone records, or whether it would amount to an invasion of privacy.
"We do not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval," Bush said in an East Room news conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
"What I've told the American people is we'll protect them against an al-Qaida attack. And we'll do that within the law," Bush said.
The president's new press secretary, Tony Snow, later insisted that Bush's comments did not amount to a confirmation of published reports that the NSA's surveillance was broader than initially acknowledged and that it included secretly collecting millions of phone-call records.
Bush said, "This government will continue to guard the privacy of the American people. But if al-Qaida is calling into the United States, we want to know, and we want to know why."
However, he did not respond directly when asked whether it was a violation of privacy for the National Security Agency to seek phone records from telephone companies.
A Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Thursday on Bush's nomination of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden to head the Central Intelligence Agency. As the NSA director from 1999-2005, Hayden oversaw the government's warrantless surveillance program.
Questions about that program, and new revelations about the NSA's phone data bank, may be obstacles to Hayden's confirmation.
Bush did appear to acknowledge the NSA sweep of phone records indirectly, saying that the program referred to by a reporter in a question "is one that has been fully briefed to members of the United States Congress in both political parties."
"They're very aware of what is taking place. The American people expect their government to protect them within the laws of this country and I'm going to continue to do just that," he said.
However, Snow, in his first on-camera briefing as press secretary, later denied that Bush was confirming a story about collecting domestic phone records that was first reported last week in USA Today.
"He was talking about foreign-to-domestic calls," Snow said. "The allegations in the USA Today piece were of a different nature."
"There seems to be a notion that because the president has talked a little bit about one surveillance program, and one matter of intelligence gathering, that somehow we have to tell the entire world — we have to make intelligence-gathering transparent," Snow said. "Let me remind you, it's a war on terror. ... Al Qaida does not believe in transparency. What al Qaida believes in is mayhem."
To coincide with Hayden's hearings, Americans United For Change is running an ad denouncing the administration's condemnation of leaks.
Democrats have said the White House has a double standard, criticizing leaks on its national security programs while approving leaks on political adversaries to defend the case for the Iraq war. The disclosure of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's name has cited as the epitome of that policy.
The ad will quote the first President Bush expressing "contempt and anger" in 1999 for those who expose the names of U.S. sources. Spokesman Brad Woodhouse said his organization is spending just over $100,000 on CNN, Fox and the Fox affiliate in Waco, Texas.
On another subject, Bush defended his day-old initiative that aims to place up to 6,000 National Guard troops along the country's southern border to help enforce immigration laws.
The deployment "really is not going to put a strain on our capacity to fight and win the war on terror," Bush said. Critics have suggested that National Guard troops, who would carry out this mission, already are stretched thin with assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan and in coping with natural disasters at home, including Hurricane Katrina.
He thanked visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard for standing firm on keeping Australian troops in Iraq.
For his part, Howard said that the "war on terror will go on for some time. I think we have to accept that."