President Bush yesterday said he has exclusive authority over a broad range of issues — including forbidding White House officials to testify before Congress about the government’s Hurricane Katrina response and ordering warrantless electronic surveillance within the United States.
“Conducting war is a responsibility in the executive branch, not the legislative branch,” the president said at a 46-minute press conference. “Most presidents believe that during a time of war that we can use our authorities under the Constitution to make decisions necessary to protect us.”
Democrats have accused the president of breaking the law by ordering the National Security Agency in 2002 to eavesdrop on international communications between suspected terrorists and people in the United States. Senate hearings on the once-secret program are scheduled for Feb. 6.
Mr. Bush acknowledged that “there will be a legal debate about whether or not I have the authority to do this,” but added, “I’m absolutely convinced I do. And I’m going to continue using my authority.”
In response to a question from The Washington Times, Mr. Bush said: “We’re going to do what is necessary, within the Constitution and within the law, and at the same time guaranteeing people’s civil liberties, to protect the people.”
Asked whether he would support efforts in Congress to spell out his authority to continue the eavesdropping program, Mr. Bush cited what he said was the extreme secrecy of the operation, first revealed by the New York Times last month.
“It’s important for people to understand that this program is so sensitive and so important that if information gets out to how we run it or how we operate it, it’ll help the enemy,” he said.
Asked why his administration has refused to allow senior staff, including his former FEMA director, Michael Brown, “to testify, to interview or talk with congressional leaders” about the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush cited his executive authority.
“If people give me advice and they’re forced to disclose that advice, it means the next time an issue comes up I might not be able to get unvarnished advice from my advisers,” he said. “It will have a chilling effect on future advisers if the precedent is such that when they give me advice that it’s going to be subject to scrutiny.”
The president opened with a preview of his State of the Union address, which he will deliver Tuesday to a joint session of Congress. He said he believes Democrats and Republicans can accomplish something together even though this is a congressional election year. Responding to a question later, he said he was eager to get out and help Republicans win in November.
“I’ve got one more off-year campaign in me as a sitting president, and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.