WASHINGTON — President Bush said Saturday he personally has authorized a secret eavesdropping program in the U.S. more than 30 times since the Sept. 11 attacks and he lashed out at those involved in publicly revealing the program.
"This is a highly classified program that is crucial to our national security," he said in a radio address delivered live from the White House's Roosevelt Room.
"This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power, under our laws and Constitution, to protect them and their civil liberties and that is exactly what I will continue to do as long as I am president of the United States," Bush said.
Angry members of Congress have demanded an explanation of the program, first revealed in Friday's New York Times and whether the monitoring by the National Security Agency violates civil liberties.
Program constitutional, Bush says
Bush said the program was narrowly designed and used "consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution." He said it is used only to intercept the international communications of people inside the United States who have been determined to have "a clear link" to al-Qaida or related terrorist organizations.
The program is reviewed every 45 days, using fresh threat assessments, legal reviews by the Justice Department, White House counsel and others, and information from previous activities under the program, the president said.
Without identifying specific lawmakers, Bush said congressional leaders have been briefed more than a dozen times on the program's activities.
The president also said the intelligence officials involved in the monitoring receive extensive training to make sure civil liberties are not violated.
Adamant in his defense
Appearing angry at points during his eight-minute address, Bush said he had reauthorized the program more than 30 times since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and plans to continue doing so.
"I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups," he said.
The president contended the program has helped "detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the U.S. and abroad," but did not provide specific examples.
He said it is designed in part to fix problems raised by the Sept. 11 commission, which found that two of the suicide hijackers were communicating from San Diego with al-Qaida operatives overseas.
"The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time," he said.
Bush's remarks echoed — in many cases word-for-word — those issued Friday night by a senior intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity. His highly unusual discussion of classified activities showed the sensitive nature of the program, whose existence was revealed as Congress was trying to renew the terrorism-fighting Patriot Act and complicated that effort, a top priority of Bush's.
Senate Democrats joined with a handful of Republicans on Friday to stall the bill. Those opposing the renewal of key provisions of the act that are expiring say they threaten constitutional liberties.
Critics call Bush’s justification ‘absurd’
Reacting to Bush's defense of the NSA program, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., said the president's remarks were "breathtaking in how extreme they were."
Feingold said it was "absurd" that Bush said he relied on his inherent power as president to authorize the wiretaps.
"If that's true, he doesn't need the Patriot Act because he can just make it up as he goes along. I tell you, he's President George Bush, not King George Bush. This is not the system of government we have and that we fought for," Feingold told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The president had harsh words for those who talked about the program to the media, saying their actions were illegal and improper.
"As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have," he said. "The unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk."
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