- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

President Bush plans to thumb his nose at critics next week by visiting the National Security Agency to defend its practice of eavesdropping on conversations between overseas al Qaeda suspects and Americans.

It’s part of a coordinated public relations blitz by the White House to define the eavesdropping as a crucial weapon against terrorism in advance of congressional hearings on the program next month.

“We are stepping up our efforts to educate the American people,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “This is a critical tool that helps us save lives and prevent attacks.”

He added: “It is limited and targeted to al Qaeda communications, with the focus being on detection and prevention.”

While opinion polls show public support for the program, liberals have tried to use it against Mr. Bush by suggesting he is overstepping his authority as the nation’s chief executive. The program was called “illegal” yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union in a briefing to Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee.

“The executive power of our country is not an imperial power,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU legislative office in Washington. “The president has demonstrated a dangerous disregard for our Constitution and our laws with his authorization for this illegal program.”

To counter this argument, the administration is mounting an aggressive campaign to retain and solidify public support for the eavesdropping program. It began yesterday, when White House strategist Karl Rove accused Democrats of making “wild and reckless and false charges” against Mr. Bush.

“That doesn’t make them unpatriotic, not at all,” Mr. Rove said at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting. “But it does make them wrong — wrong deeply and profoundly and consistently.”

He added: “Let me be as clear as I can be: President Bush believes if al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interests to know who they’re calling and why.”

While Mr. Rove was exhorting the party faithful, Vice President Dick Cheney was making the same points during an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt.

“This is not a domestic surveillance program, as it’s been referred to frequently by the press or some of our critics,” he said. “At least one end of the communications involve al Qaeda and a connection outside the U.S.”

Mr. Cheney yesterday gave one of his regular briefings on the program to congressional leaders, both Democratic and Republican, at the White House.

On Monday, Deputy National Intelligence Director Mike Hayden, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, will defend the program during a speech at the National Press Club. Gen. Hayden was director of the NSA when Mr. Bush first ordered the eavesdropping in October 2001.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales will champion the program in a Washington speech. He has agreed to answer questions about the legality of the program, but not the methods, before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 6.

This week, Mr. Gonzales mounted a detailed defense of the program in a 42-page document that he sent to congressional leaders. The paper maintains that the Constitution gives Mr. Bush the authority to order wiretaps without a warrant in the battle against terrorism.

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