Diego Union Tribune
December 20, 2005
Bush says spying is needed to guard U.S.
President criticizes leaking of program as 'shameful act'
By George E. Condon Jr.
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – President Bush yesterday vigorously defended his decision to permit domestic spying without court approval, calling the eavesdropping program essential to the war on terrorism and denying that he was assuming "dictatorial" powers.
"Do I have the legal authority to do this? And the answer is, absolutely," the president said, contending that the Constitution allows the government to listen in on telephone calls during wartime without taking the normal steps of getting court permission.
He blasted as "a shameful act" the leaking of the surveillance program, which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales yesterday called "probably the most classified program that exists in the United States government."
At his year-end news conference in the East Room yesterday, President Bush said the domestic eavesdropping program is "a necessary part of my job to protect you."
Despite the president's stout defense, more senators from both parties are demanding that the White House explain more fully where the president got the authority to order the wiretaps.
At his end-of-the-year news conference in the East Room of the White House, the president also hit hard at senators who are blocking renewal of the USA Patriot Act, accusing them of making another 9/11-style attack on U.S. targets more likely.
"It is inexcusable for the United States Senate to let this Patriot Act expire" at the end of the year, said Bush, saying it helps the government "connect the dots" to figure out what terrorists are plotting.
He blamed "a minority of senators" – mostly Democrats – for waging a filibuster to block the renewal approved by the House. Opponents have offered a three-month extension while contentious issues are worked out. But Bush has rejected that.
In remarks that seemed to be aimed at Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both California Democrats, he demanded a full renewal.
"I want senators from New York or Los Angeles or Las Vegas to go home and explain why these cities are safer," he said. "It is inexcusable to say, on the one hand, 'connect the dots' and not give us a chance to do so."
Reid responded, "The president and the Republican leadership should stop playing politics with the Patriot Act," urging the White House to accept a three-month extension.
Though the president made another pitch for patience in Iraq, the news conference was dominated by the domestic spying program, which was revealed on Friday. Only one of the 16 questions asked in the 56-minute session concerned something other than foreign policy.
After a weekend of bipartisan questions about the legal justification for listening in on telephone calls either initiated or received within the United States, the news conference was part of a counterattack that the White House hopes will head off threatened congressional hearings.
The president's aides held an unusual early morning briefing before the news conference at which the attorney general and a top official of the National Security Agency argued that Bush acted legally when he approved the domestic eavesdropping program in late 2001.
Gonzales acknowledged that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires a court order for such domestic spying. But he said Congress implicitly gave authorization when it approved the use of force in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks – even though such activities are never mentioned in that act.
He called such spying "a fundamental incident of waging war." He also argued that the Constitution gives the president inherent authority "to engage in this kind of activity." Gonzales said disclosure of the program "has really hurt our country."
At the news conference, Bush's ninth of the year, he cast the domestic espionage as essential to the war on terror and blasted whoever leaked the program to The New York Times.
"It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy," he said.
Both Bush and Gonzales were noncommittal about launching an investigation to track down the leaker. "We'll just have to wait and see," Gonzales said.
Pressed on why he did not follow the surveillance act and get court approval, Bush said that would be too slow, even though such approval can be granted retroactively.
"We've got to be fast on our feet, quick to detect and prevent," he said.
He stressed that the eavesdropping has been limited only to those who are known to have ties to al-Qaeda and only to situations in which one of the callers is outside the United States.
"I just want to assure the American people that, one, I've got the authority to do this; two, it is a necessary part of my job to protect you; and, three, we're guarding your civil liberties," he said.
Bush bristled when a reporter asked if it was a permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the president.
"I disagree with your assertion of 'unchecked power,' " Bush said angrily, adding, "To say unchecked power basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject."
He said he is checked by his oath to uphold the law and by the congressional leaders who, he said, were repeatedly briefed on the program.
As he did Saturday when he first acknowledged the program, the president cited the case of two of the 9/11 planners operating in San Diego back in 2001, suggesting they may have been caught and the attacks averted had there been anyone listening to their phone calls.
"There (were) two killers in San Diego making phone calls prior to the September the 11th attacks," he said. "Had this program been in place then, it is more likely we would have been able to catch them."
Bush was referring to 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, who lived openly in San Diego before the attacks. Investigations by the House and Senate intelligence committees and an independent commission highlighted several failures by the CIA and FBI to apprehend the pair before the attacks.
Both were known to have links to al-Qaeda and the CIA knew in March 2000 that Alhazmi had entered the United States. Also in 2000, al-Midhar contacted a suspected terrorist facility in the Middle East from the United States, according to the congressional investigation.
Bush was unenthusiastic about the prospect of a congressional investigation of the program, saying, "Any public hearings on programs will say to the enemy, 'Here's what they do; adjust.' "
Bush's news conference marked the second time in 13 hours that he appeared before a nationally televised audience. On Sunday evening, he delivered an update on the Iraq war from the Oval Office, the fifth in a series of speeches designed to turn around a slide in public support for his Iraq policy.
There were at least some early indications the White House public relations offensive was paying dividends. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released late yesterday showed the president's approval has climbed to 47 percent, up from 39 percent last month.
On other matters yesterday, the president acknowledged that U.S. intelligence failures on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have hurt the credibility of other intelligence.
"Where it is going to be most difficult to make the case is in the public arena," he said. "People will say, if we're trying to make the case on Iran (that) the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore, how can we trust in intelligence in Iran?"
On the only domestic issue addressed during the news conference, the president expressed regret that many thought he was turning his back on Hurricane Katrina's black victims.
"The fact that some in America believe that I am not concerned about race troubles me," he said. "One of the most hurtful things I can hear is, 'Bush doesn't care about African-Americans.' First of all, it's not true."
"And secondly," he added, "obviously I've got to do a better job of communicating."
The Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.