- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — President Bush said yesterday that he is doing everything “within the Constitution” to protect the American people from another terrorist attack, but added that congressional hearings into a top-secret U.S. spying program will be “good for democracy.”

In an unusual, 75-minute campaign-style town hall meeting — which included nearly a dozen questions from members of the invited audience — Mr. Bush said he firmly believes he has the authority to order warrantless wiretaps of phone calls by people thought to be linked to al Qaeda or its affiliates.

“I have the right as the commander in chief in a time of war to take action necessary to protect the American people,” he said during the event at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville. “I can understand concerns about this program. Before I went forward, I wanted to make sure I had all the legal authority necessary to make this decision as your president.”

Mr. Bush said that after the September 11 attacks, he vowed “that I would use everything in my power — obviously, within the Constitution — but everything in my power to protect the American people. … I put that hand on the Bible, and I meant it when I said I’m going to uphold the Constitution.”

Some on Capitol Hill are demanding an investigation into the wiretapping program, first revealed last month by the New York Times. The program allows the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international phone calls without a warrant, which Democrats say is a violation of the constitutional right to privacy.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean criticized the Bush administration’s “disregard for our courts and our laws.”

“President Bush’s decision to sidestep the rule of law and spy on Americans without a court order may have dealt a serious blow to our ability to fight and win the war on terror,” Mr. Dean said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings on the issue for early February, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence plans to hold closed-door hearings — both of which Mr. Bush endorsed yesterday.

“There will be a lot of hearings and talk about that, but that’s good for democracy,” he said. He added a caveat, however: “Just so long as the hearings, as they explore whether or not I have the prerogative to make the decision I made, doesn’t tell the enemy what we’re doing. See, that’s the danger.”

Continuing an effort that began last month to convince Americans that he has a plan for Iraq, Mr. Bush was conciliatory and occasionally contrite during the lengthy question-and-answer session with some of the 400 community leaders, small-business owners and others in attendance.

On the invasion of Iraq, he said: “I can understand folks who say, ‘I wish you hadn’t done that.’” On the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he said: “I understand that the intelligence didn’t turn out the way a lot of the world thought it would be. And that was disappointing, and we’ve done something about it” by overhauling the nation’s intelligence agencies.

But he took aim at Democrats who he said might be looking to exploit the difficulties in Iraq during midterm elections in November.

Responding to a 7-year-old in the audience who asked how Americans can help in the war on terror, Mr. Bush said: “One way people can help as we’re coming down the pike in the 2006 elections is remember the effect that rhetoric can have on our troops in harm’s way and the effect that rhetoric can have in emboldening or weakening an enemy.”

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