FORT MEADE, Md. — President Bush defended his spying program on new grounds Wednesday, visiting the ultra-secret facility where the government monitors electronic communications.
After a tour of the National Security Agency, Bush said employees there who are secretly monitoring phone calls and Internet traffic are learning what terrorists are plotting against America. Bush said they are taking Osama bin Laden seriously when he says he’s going to attack again.
“When he says he’s going to hurt the American people again, or try to, he means it,” Bush told reporters after visiting the NSA, where the surveillance program is based. “I take it seriously, and the people of NSA take it seriously.”
It was Bush’s first comment about bin Laden since a tape was aired last week in which the al-Qaida leader warned that his fighters are preparing new attacks in the United States. Bin Laden offered the American people a truce, without specifying the conditions, but the White House said the United States would never negotiate with the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush’s NSA visit was part of an aggressive administration effort to defend the surveillance program. Some experts and lawmakers from both parties have questioned whether it’s legal for the government to listen to conversations in the United States without a warrant, which the administration could get through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Democrats sharply criticize program
Four leading Democratic senators sent Bush a letter Wednesday saying although they support efforts to do everything possible within the law to combat terrorism, the NSA program is an “apparent violation of federal law.”
“If you or officials in your administration believe that FISA, or any law, does not give you enough authority to combat terrorism, you should propose changes in the law to Congress,” wrote Sens. Harry Reid, Edward Kennedy, Richard Durbin and Russ Feingold. “You may not simply disregard the law.” Video: McCain weighs in
Reporters traveling with the president were only allowed to see a few minutes of Bush’s NSA tour, as he walked through the high-tech Threat Operations Center where intelligence experts monitor Internet traffic. He spoke to reporters from a podium set up in a hallway after completing his tour, but did not take any questions.
In keeping with the NSA’s secrecy, reporters were required to leave their cell phones, pagers, laptops and wireless e-mail devices outside the complex. The White House negotiated so the journalists could bring in cameras and video equipment, but they were allowed only to take photos of the president, not the exterior or interior of the facility itself.
Take bin Laden 'seriously,' Bush says
Bush said the NSA program is limited to communications between the United States and people overseas who are linked to al-Qaida. He said the NSA program has helped prevent terrorist attacks and save American lives, although the government has not given any specifics.
“Officials here learn information about plotters and planners and people who would do us harm,” Bush said, reading from note cards. “Now, I understand there’s some in America who say, ‘Well, this can’t be true there are still people willing to attack.’ All I would ask them to do is listen to the words of Osama bin Laden and take him seriously.”
However, no one in the political debate over the war on terror or the NSA program has suggested that terrorists no longer want to attack the United States. Rather, Bush’s critics have argued that the law requires him to get permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to eavesdrop on communications involving Americans.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., issued a blistering attack on Bush’s explanations.
“Obviously, I support tracking down terrorists,” she said. “I think that’s our obligation. But I think it can be done in a lawful way. Their argument that it’s rooted in the authority to go after al-Qaida is far-fetched. Their argument that it’s rooted in the Constitution inherently is kind of strange because we have FISA and FISA operated very effectively and it wasn’t that hard to get their permission.”
Bush said he had the legal right to do whatever he could to prevent further attacks and that the NSA program “is fully consistent with our nation’s laws and Constitution.”
“I’ll continue to reauthorize this program for so long as our country faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups,” Bush said. “This enemy still wants to do harm to the American people. We cannot let the fact that we have not been attacked lull us into the illusion that the threats to our nation have disappeared.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he’s eager to learn more. Asked on NBC’s “Today” show, if Bush broke the law, McCain replied: “I don’t know. I want to be perfectly clear. I don’t know the answer.”
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