CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Bush, told by a critic he should be ashamed of his policies, defended the government’s secret eavesdropping program Thursday and said he would not apologize for listening in on the phone and e-mail conversations of Americans talking to people with suspected al-Qaida links.
A man who identified himself as Harry Taylor rose at a forum here to tell Bush that he’s never felt more ashamed of the leadership of his country. He said Bush has asserted his right to tap phone calls without a warrant, to arrest people and hold them without charges, and to revoke a woman’s right to an abortion, among other things.
He was booed by the audience, but Bush interrupted and urged the audience to let Taylor finish.
“I feel like despite your rhetoric, that compassion and common sense have been left far behind during your administraiton,” Taylor said, standing in a balcony seat and looking down at Bush on stage. “And I would hope from time to time that you have the humility and grace to be ashamed of yourself.”
Bush defended the National Security Administration’s surveillance program, saying he authorized the program to protect the country.
“You said would I apologize for that?” Bush told him. “The answer is absolutely not.”
Earlier Thursday, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee pointedly criticized Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for “stonewalling” by refusing to answer questions about the warrantless eavesdropping program.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said Gonzales was frustrating his panel’s oversight of the Justice Department and the controversial surveillance by declining to provide information about how the program is reviewed inside the administration and by whom.
“How can we discharge our oversight if, every time we ask a pointed question, we’re told the program is classified?” Sensenbrenner asked Gonzales near the start of a lengthy hearing on the department’s activities. “I think that ... is stonewalling.”
Gonzales did not budge, defending the eavesdropping as lawful and telling Sensenbrenner and other lawmakers on the panel that he would not discuss classified matters.
“I do not think we are thumbing our nose at the Congress or the courts,” Gonzales said in response to a question from Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the committee’s senior Democrat.
Tough questions from audience
The challenge to the president came near the end of a lengthy appearance before the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, where he took questions from the audience. This has become a regular feature of Bush’s appearances as he tries to revive public support for his leadership.
Despite a couple of tough questions, the president got plenty of softballs. One woman requested a picture with him, and another asked about how young people can get involved to help. One questioner simply told the president people are praying for him, and another said he has a friend from Iraq who is grateful that he has made the country safer.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the nonpartisan World Affairs Council handed out the bulk of the 1,000 tickets for the event, with the remaining 250 tickets handed out by the host, Central Piedmont Community College.
Outside, Bush’s motorcade came within sight of at least a couple of hundred protesters outside the hall. They chanted, “Do your job!” and held signs with phrases such as “Liar” and “Worst President Ever.”
Bush was also asked what he would have done differently in the Iraq war. He talked about different tactics for police and security training and for reconstruction, and he expressed strong regret about the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison.
Reassurance on Iraq
“What took place there and the pictures there just represented everything there that we didn’t stand for, and it hurt us,” Bush said. “It gave the enemy a fantastic opportunity to use it for propaganda reasons. ... I wish that can be done over. It was a disgraceful experience.”
In his opening comments, Bush said he realizes that Americans are worried that Iraqis will not be able to take control of their violence-torn country.
Bush said he hears the debate from those who “wonder if these people can ever get their act together and self govern. I’m confident they can if we don’t lose our nerve.”
Defending his decision to go to war in Iraq three years later, Bush said it was important that he follow up his words with action when Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with the United Nations.
“When America speaks, we ought to mean what we said,” Bush told the World Affairs Council of Charlotte. “I meant what we said when we embraced that resolution that said ‘Disclose. Disarm. Or face serious consequences.’ Words mean something in this world if you’re trying to protect the American people.”
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