WASHINGTON — President Bush and his top national security advisers are trying to change the debate — and even the vocabulary — about the National Security Agency’s controversial electronic monitoring program.
Don’t call it domestic spying, they say. It’s a terrorist surveillance program.
Americans have been uneasy about the program since it was first disclosed last month. According to polls, slightly more than half think the government should first get a warrant before eavesdropping on people in the United States whose calls and e-mails the government believes involve al-Qaida.
Bush, along with the nation’s top military intelligence officer and the attorney general, has made the case in a three-day pitch.
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the government’s No. 2 intelligence official, tried to drive the point home using air travel.
“I’ve taken literally hundreds of domestic flights,” Hayden said this week at the National Press Club. “I have never boarded a domestic flight in the United States of America and landed in Waziristan,” a Pakistani region where some think Osama bin Laden may be hiding.
With that in mind, Hayden said, calling the monitoring program “domestic spying” isn’t accurate when the calls start or end in another country — for example, when al-Qaida’s operations chief in Pakistan may have called someone in Maryland.
According to law, the rules and procedures for monitoring domestic communications apply even when only one end of the call is on U.S. soil. That’s why Bush signed a highly classified directive approving the program, and has to reapprove it every 45 days.
The renewed public case from Bush and his advisers comes more than a month after the monitoring program was revealed and puts one of the government’s most secretive intelligence agencies in an unusual spot. Most NSA employees would prefer to toil with no notice at their Fort Meade, Md., campus, roughly 25 miles from the White House.
Yet, on Wednesday Bush stopped by to rally the 30,000 workers — at headquarters or worldwide by video. Reporters came along, but weren’t allowed to listen to his speech.
“We must be able to quickly detect when someone linked to al-Qaida is communicating with someone inside of America,” Bush said afterward. “That’s one of the challenges of protecting the American people.”
Like Bush, Hayden and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have sought to remind the nation of the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. They also have invoked bin Laden’s message last week threatening the United States.
Average Americans’ calls not monitored?
And they said the government is only interested in calls from suspected terrorists, not average Americans.
“When you’re talking to your daughter at state college, this program cannot intercept your conversations,” Hayden said. “And when she takes a semester abroad to complete her Arabic studies, this program will not intercept your communications.”
Yet current and former government officials familiar with electronic monitoring say that accidental eavesdropping — so-called “incidental intercepts” — are part of the business. When it happens, the NSA has procedures to protect the identities of Americans and their privacy.
Video: McCain weighs in on domestic espionage Hayden broadly addressed some of the procedures Monday, but even those who support the monitoring program concede the rules don’t fit into ready-made public explanations.
Congress gets involved next month. The administration will face tough questions from lawmakers who want to enforce a robust check on the executive branch.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., wrote Gonzales Wednesday, laying out a series of subjects he wants to see addressed at his committee’s Feb. 6 hearing: Why did the White House not ask Congress for changes to a 1978 foreign surveillance law? Why didn’t the administration go to an established intelligence court to get approval for the monitoring? Will the White House consider doing that now?
Democrats want to see the committee call more witnesses than now planned, including former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who reportedly had misgivings about the program. Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats are also requesting that their panel investigate.
In the end, the issue may land in the gray areas of intelligence gathering.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey sides with the president, but recently said it’s a close call. “If anyone says it’s a crystal clear issue one way or another, that is the only position I regard as wrong,” Woolsey said.
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