President Bush on Thursday said Hamas must renounce violence and halt its calls for the destruction of Israel if it wants to be a peaceful political party, while on a more domestic front, he vowed to continue the use of his controversial wiretap program at home.
"We've got much work to do to protect the nation ... I'm going to do everything in my authority to protect the American people," Bush said during his opening remarks of a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas won a huge majority in parliamentary elections Wednesday as Palestinian voters rejected the longtime rule of the Fatah Party, throwing the future of Mideast peacemaking into question. While he didn't completely rule out working with the new government, Bush said the United States will not deal with a political party whose platform includes violence and the destruction of Israel.
"I don't see how you can be a partner in peace when you advocate the destruction of a country on your platform" or when a party has an armed wing, Bush said. "We will watch very carefully about the formation of the government, but I will continue to remind people about what I just said: If your platform is the destruction of Israel, that means you're not interested in peace."
Bush also addressed the National Security Agency program to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance against some people inside the United States communicating with suspected Al Qaeda-linked individuals overseas. That program, which Bush authorized after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has come under fire recently from Democrats who say Bush overstepped his legal bounds.
"'Circumventing' Is a Loaded Word"
The administration has gone on an offensive push for the so-called "terror surveillance program" in recent days, saying it has proved to be a vital tool in the War on Terror, particularly since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that usually authorizes wiretap warrants is outdated.
Administration officials argue that they must know what sort of communication is going on between potential sleeper cells inside the United States and their overseas contacts who may someday order an attack. Bush repeatedly stressed this week that a system of checks and balances is built into the program and that instances have been documented of the program infringing on civil liberties.
"The terrorist surveillance program is necessary to protect America from attack," Bush said, noting that he double-checked the legality and efficacy of the program with lawyers and NSA operators before it was launched.
"There's no doubt in my mind it is legal … there's no doubt in my mind there's safeguards in place to make sure the program focuses on calls coming from outside the United States with the belief there's someone related to Al Qaeda making the call to the United States ... but not domestic calls," Bush explained. "We will not listen inside this country."
He said Congress doesn't need to pass a law giving him authority to conduct such operations; the administration argues that the program is already legal under the Constitution and that Congress gave Bush the power to order such actions in a congressional resolution passed after the Sept. 11 attacks. The American people will understand that rationale, he said, and Congress will continue to be briefed on aspects of the program.
"But it's important for people to understand this program is so sensitive and so important, that if information gets out about how we do it or how we run it or how we operate, it will help the enemy," he said. "I think the American people understand that. Why tell the enemy what we're doing if the program is designed to protect us from the enemy?"
Bush also took issue with people saying he circumvented the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which calls for the warrants to be approved by the FISA Court.
"It's like saying 'you're breaking the law' and I'm not, that's what you've got to understand. I'm upholding my duty," Bush said. "'Circumventing' is a loaded word, and I refuse to accept it because I believe what I'm doing is legally right."
He said legal experts thought today's surveillance could not be successful if operated under 1978 rules. "We're having this discussion in 2006. It's a different world and FISA's still an important tool," the president added.
Bush: Mideast Peace is Not Dead
The president said he will continue to push what he called an "optimistic agenda" to promote democracy and freedom throughout the world.
On the issue of Hamas' victory this week, Bush said while it's a good sign voters turned out to express dissatisfaction with the current political regime, the party must denounce violence and destruction in order to further the Mideast peace process.
"Peace is not dead, people want peace," Bush said, again stressing his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said the results of the election "remind me of the power of democracy ... it provides a look into society."
While Bush said it was a positive sign the elections were peaceful, "what's also positive is it's a wakeup call to the leadership."
"Obviously, people were not happy with the status quo," he continued, referring to the Fatah Party, many members of which are holdovers from the days of the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
"People are demanding honest government, the people want services, they want to be able to raise their children in an environment in which they can get a decent education and they can find health care. So the elections should open the eyes of the old guard there in the Palestinian territories. I like the competition of ideas."
Bush also called on the Senate to quickly confirm Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
"He understands the role of the judge is to interpret the law, he understands the role of a judge is not to advance a political agenda," Bush said of Alito. "He's a decent man who has a lot of experience and he deserves an up-or-down vote on the floor of the United States Senate."
The Senate is expected to vote on Alito's nomination this week. Although Democrats have not completely ruled out the option of a filibuster to prevent a vote, that procedural move is not likely.
Bush was also asked why he would not allow pictures to be released of himself and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The president has said he doesn't recall personally meeting Abramoff. The White House has not released details of any meetings between Abramoff and Bush, or between the lobbyist and senior-level staffers.
Both Washingtonian and Time magazines have reported the existence of about a half-dozen photos showing the two together.
"I've had my picture taken with a lot of people ... having my picture taken doesn't mean I'm friends with them," Bush responded Thursday. "I can't say I didn't have a meeting, but I meet a lot of people."
Bush said he tries not to meet with lobbyists, but couldn't say for sure that he has never met with one. But the ongoing investigation into Abramoff and his dealings with Congress should be probed, he said. Many lawmakers have called for ethics reform in Washington in the wake of the Abramoff scandal.
"There is a serious investigation going on, as there should be," the president said. "The American people have got to have confidence in the ethics of all branches of government."
Bush was also asked about the validity of recent news reports that the CIA was using the practice of rendition to send terror suspects to overseas countries to be tortured as part of the war on terrorism. Also making headlines lately is the possibility that the CIA operated secret prisons in various countries overseas.
"I haven’t seen that report, but if they're saying we tortured people, they're wrong," Bush responded, adding that he strongly supports the amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., which prohibits the use of torture by the U.S. government. "No American will be allowed to torture anyone."
Not facing another re-election campaign himself, Bush said he was ready to hit the campaign trail one more time in support of Republican congressional candidates this year. "We've got a record and a good one, and that's what I intend to campaign on," Bush said.
The president defended the administration's level of cooperation with congressional investigations into the pace of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, saying the White House has provided thousands of documents
Senators leading the investigation say staffers at the White House and other federal agencies have refused to be interviewed and that other officials won't clearly answer questions about times and dates of meetings and telephone calls with the White House.
Bush said that allowing all staffers to be interviewed would have a "chilling effect" on the ability of presidential advisers to speak freely.
He also shrugged off a recent Pentagon report that said the Army was overextended and the United States cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday denied that the Army was stretched too thin.
"Our commanders will have the troops necessary" to win a victory in Iraq, Bush said, adding that the military is transforming itself to meet its goals in the 21st century. "After five years of war, there is a need to make sure troops are balanced properly, threats are met with capabilities. That's why we're transforming the military."
Bush also touched on some themes that will be heard in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. White House officials said the president has been going through that speech and practicing key phrases in preparation for Tuesday's address.
Thursday marked Bush's 22nd solo news conference since taking office. The last one took place on Dec. 19 in the East Room of the White House. Bush opened that press conference with statement on the Iraqi elections, USA Patriot Act and surveillance activities.