News Intelligence Analysis
From the New York Times
January 2, 2006
Bush Defends Spy Program and Denies Misleading Public
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON, Jan. 1 - President Bush continued on Sunday to defend both the legality and the necessity of the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program, and he denied that he misled the public last year when he insisted that any government wiretap required a court order.
"I think most Americans understand the need to find out what the enemy's thinking, and that's what we're doing," Mr. Bush told reporters in San Antonio as he visited wounded soldiers at the Brooke Army Medical Center.
"They attacked us before, they'll attack us again if they can," he said. "And we're going to do everything we can to stop them."
Mr. Bush's strong defense of the N.S.A. program, which he authorized in 2002 to allow some domestic eavesdropping without court warrants, came as a leading Democratic lawmaker called on the administration to make available current and former high-level officials to explain the evolution of the secret program.
Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has already pledged to make hearings into the program one of his highest priorities.
In a letter to Mr. Specter on Sunday, Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who is also on the committee, said the panel should also explore "significant concern about the legality of the program even at the very highest levels of the Department of Justice."
The New York Times reported Sunday that James B. Comey, then deputy attorney general, refused to sign on to the recertification of the program in March 2004.
That prompted two of Mr. Bush's most senior aides - Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff, and Alberto R. Gonzales, then the White House counsel and now the attorney general - to make an emergency hospital visit to John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, to try to persuade him to give his authorization, as required by White House procedures for the program.
Officials with knowledge of the events said that Mr. Ashcroft also appeared reluctant to sign on to the continued use of the program, and that the Justice Department's concerns appear to have led in part to the suspension of the program for several months. After a secret audit, new protocols were put in place at the N.S.A. to better determine how the agency established the targets of its eavesdropping operations, officials have said.
Asked Sunday about internal opposition, President Bush said: "This program has been reviewed, constantly reviewed, by people throughout my administration. And it still is reviewed.
"Not only has it been reviewed by Justice Department officials, it's been reviewed by members of the United States Congress," he said. "It's a vital, necessary program."
But Mr. Schumer, in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," said the White House should have to explain the apparent internal dissent over the program.
"I hope the White House won't hide behind saying 'executive privilege, we can't discuss this,' " Mr. Schumer said. "That's the wrong attitude."
"A discussion, perhaps a change in the law," he said, "those are all legitimate. Unilaterally changing the law because the vice president or president thinks it's wrong, without discussing the change, that's not the American way."
But Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said on the same television program that Mr. Bush had acted within the Constitution to protect the country from another terrorist attack. Mr. McConnell said the focus now should be on identifying who disclosed the existence of the classified operation.
The Justice Department said Friday that it had opened an investigation into the disclosure of the N.S.A. program, which was first reported by The Times on Dec. 15.
Mr. McConnell said of the disclosure, "This needs to be investigated, because whoever leaked this information has done the U.S. and its national security a great disservice."
As Mr. Bush continued to defend the program in San Antonio, he was asked about a remark he made in Buffalo in 2004 at an appearance in support of the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, where he discussed government wiretaps.
"Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap," Mr. Bush said in Buffalo, "a wiretap requires a court order."
He added: "Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so."
Democrats have seized on the remark, made more than two years after Mr. Bush authorized the N.S.A. to conduct wiretaps without warrants, in charging that the president had misled the public.
Asked about that charge on Sunday, Mr. Bush said: "I was talking about roving wiretaps, I believe, involved in the Patriot Act. This is different from the N.S.A. program.
"The N.S.A. program is a necessary program. I was elected to protect the American people from harm. And on Sept. 11, 2001, our nation was attacked. And after that day, I vowed to use all the resources at my disposal, within the law, to protect the American people, which is what I have been doing and will continue to do."
Mr. Bush also emphasized that the program was "limited" in nature and designed to intercept communications from known associates of Al Qaeda to the United States. He said several times that the eavesdropping was "limited to calls from outside the United States to calls within the United States."
This assertion was at odds with press accounts and public statements of his senior aides, who have said the authorization for the program required one end of a communication - either incoming or outgoing - to be outside the United States. The White House, clarifying the president's remarks after his appearance, said later that either end of the communication could in fact be outside the United States.
The Times has reported that despite a prohibition on eavesdropping on phone calls or e-mail messages that are regarded as purely domestic, the N.S.A. has accidentally intercepted what are thought to be a small number of communications in which each end was on American soil, due to technical confusion over what constitutes an "international" call.
Officials also say that the N.S.A., beyond eavesdropping on up to 500 phone numbers and e-mail addresses at any one time, has conducted much larger data-mining operations on vast volumes of communication within the United States to identify possible terror suspects. To accomplish this, the agency has reached agreements with major American telecommunications companies to gain access to some of the country's biggest "switches" carrying phone and e-mail traffic into and out of the country.
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company
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