Video: Bush scoffs at spy program critics

updated 1/23/2006 7:46:01 PM ET 2006-01-24T00:46:01

President Bush pushed back Monday at critics of his once-secret domestic spying effort, saying it should be termed a “terrorist surveillance program” and contending it has the backing of legal experts, key lawmakers and the Supreme Court.

Several members of Congress from both parties have questioned whether the warrantless snooping is legal. That is because it bypasses a special federal court that, by law, must authorize eavesdropping on Americans and because the president provided limited notification to only a few lawmakers.

“It’s amazing that people say to me, ‘Well, he’s just breaking the law.’ If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?” said Bush. One of those who had been informed, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was sitting behind him during an appearance at Kansas State University.

Bush’s remarks were part of an aggressive administration campaign to defend the 4-year-old program as a crucial and legal terror-fighting tool. The White House is trying to sell its side of the story before the Senate Judiciary Committee opens hearings on it in two weeks.

Former NSA director: Program is lawful
Back in Washington, Gen. Michael Hayden, the former NSA director who is now the government’s No. 2 intelligence official, contended the surveillance was narrowly targeted. He acknowledged the program established a lower legal standard to eavesdrop on terror-related communications than previous laws but maintained that the work was within the law.

“The constitutional standard is reasonable. ... I am convinced that we are lawful because what it is we are doing is reasonable,” Hayden said at the National Press Club.

Democrats countered that many important questions remain.

“We can be strong and operate under the rule of law,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “These are not mutually exclusive principles — they are the principles upon which our nation was founded.”

In his remarks, Bush said that allowing the National Security Agency to monitor the international phone calls and e-mails of Americans with suspected ties to terrorists can hardly be considered “domestic spying.”

“It’s what I would call a terrorist surveillance program,” Bush said at Kansas State. “If they’re making a phone call in the United States, it seems like to me we want to know why.”

He said he “had all kinds of lawyers review the process” to ensure it didn’t violate civil liberties or the law.

‘Congress gave me the authority’
And he insisted that a recent Supreme Court decision backs his contention that he had the authority to order the program through a resolution Congress passed after the 2001 terrorist attacks that lets him use force in the anti-terror fight.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I can tell you what it means: It means Congress gave me the authority to use necessary force to protect the American people, but it didn’t prescribe the tactics,” Bush said.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is to deliver a speech on the program Tuesday. And Bush was going to NSA headquarters outside Washington on Wednesday.

Last week, Gonzales sent congressional leaders a 42-page legal defense of the program. Vice President Dick Cheney defended it in New York on Thursday and briefed congressional leaders at the White House on Friday.

Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, meanwhile, has put Democrats on notice that the White House regards the issue as a political winner for Republicans in this year’s congressional elections.

Bush’s nearly two-hour appearance at Kansas State wasn’t all serious. Returning to a more casual format that he has used throughout his presidency to sell his policies, he fielded questions that ranged from Iran’s geopolitical ambitions to the sort of advice he gets from his wife, Laura.

Criticism of airport screenings
The president did allow that the nation’s drive to step up security may have gone too far in at least one area — the strict airport screenings that target grandmothers and potential terrorists alike. “I hope they stop taking off the shoes of the elderly,” Bush said with a chuckle.

The White House portrayed the freewheeling question-and-answer session before about 9,000 people in the school’s basketball arena as an example of Bush’s comfort with being challenged on any topic. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the questions were not prescreened although they turned out to be friendly.

But the event was not open to the public — and the chosen locale was in the heart of Bush-friendly territory in this reliably Republican state. About 6,000 tickets were distributed to students by the university and 800 went to soldiers from nearby Fort Riley who just returned from Iraq.

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