Video: Spy program denounced

By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/19/2005 7:35:38 PM ET 2005-12-20T00:35:38

The president argues that since 9/11, spying on Americans who may have contacts with terrorists is not only necessary but legal.

"I swore to uphold the laws," President Bush said Monday at his year-end White House news conference. "Do I have the legal authority to do this? And the answer is absolutely."

The president is claiming legal authority under both the Constitution and the law Congress passed authorizing the use of force after 9/11.

"We believe that authorization to use military force constitutes that statute, which does give permission for the president of the United States to engage in this kind of very limited, targeted electronic surveillance against our enemies," said U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Monday on the "Today" show.

The secretary of state says the program is "limited."

"This is a program that is very carefully controlled," says Condoleezza Rice. "It is reviewed constantly."

But all by in-house lawyers.

Since 9/11, the president has approved eavesdropping on telephone calls and e-mails to and from the United States involving thousands of Americans whose names or numbers may have been found on laptops and cell phones seized from suspected terrorists. 

The normal procedure is for the government to get a warrant from a special intelligence court. Even though that court rarely says no, records show that out of 4,713 other surveillance requests to the judge assigned, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, from 2002-2004, she denied only four and modified 96.

Critics ask, "Why was the president so determined to avoid court supervision?"

"It prompts speculation that perhaps the government was using information that was illegally obtained," says Steven Aftergood, a national security expert.

"He [President Bush] has essentially thumbed his nose at the Congress and said, 'Regardless of what you say, I can do as I wish,'" says Jeffery Smith, a former general counsel at the CIA.

Monday night, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, released a handwritten letter he wrote to Vice President Cheney two years ago, strongly objecting to the surveillance program. But like everyone else who had been briefed, he had been sworn to secrecy until now, under penalty of law.

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