President Bush yesterday defended National Security Agency employees who eavesdrop on suspected terrorists, even as the legality of the program was questioned by senators from both parties.
“I have the authority, both from the Constitution and the Congress, to undertake this vital program,” Mr. Bush said after a private speech to employees at the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
“The American people expect me to protect their lives and their civil liberties, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with this program.”
The president took the unusual step of imploring Americans to heed the warnings of Osama bin Laden, who threatened additional attacks against the U.S. in an audiotape that surfaced last week.
“Listen to the words of Osama bin Laden and take him seriously,” Mr. Bush said. “When he says he’s going to hurt the American people again, or try to, he means it. I take it seriously, and the people of NSA take it seriously.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was skeptical of such arguments by Mr. Bush and his advisers, who are in the midst of a public-relations offensive to justify the eavesdropping program.
“Their argument that it’s rooted in the authority to go after al Qaeda is far-fetched,” the New York Democrat told reporters at a gathering of the nation’s mayors. “Their argument that it’s rooted in the Constitution inherently is kind of strange.”
Mrs. Clinton, who is widely expected to run for president in 2008, questioned the legality of the program, which targets conversations between Americans and overseas terror suspects.
“Obviously, I support tracking down terrorists — I think that’s our obligation,” she said. “But I think it can be done in a lawful way.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said the legalities of the program will be explored in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings scheduled to begin Feb. 6. The committee chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, yesterday outlined 15 areas of inquiry in a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who has agreed to testify.
Asked by NBC whether the president “broke the law,” Mr. McCain said, “I don’t know the answer. That’s why I welcome the hearings. If I was sure whether it’s legal or not, then I wouldn’t feel that these hearings are important.”
Still, Mr. McCain said the program serves a vital purpose.
“There’s no American that wouldn’t want us to absolutely be able to listen in on al Qaeda cells,” he said. “This is a new threat, and frankly, a lot of us are very concerned.”
The president was unambiguous about the legality of the program, which allows eavesdropping without a warrant.
“This terrorist surveillance program includes multiple safeguards to protect civil liberties, and it is fully consistent with our nation’s laws and Constitution,” he told reporters. “Federal courts have consistently ruled that a president has authority under the Constitution to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance against our enemies.”
Mr. Bush suggested that some of the same people who criticized him for not doing enough to prevent the terrorist attacks of September 11 are now criticizing him for doing too much.
“Two of the hijackers who struck the Pentagon were inside the United States communicating with al Qaeda operatives overseas,” he said. “But we didn’t realize they were here plotting the attack until it was too late.”
He added, “The 9/11 commission made clear, in this era of new dangers we must be able to connect the dots before the terrorists strike so we can stop new attacks. And this NSA program is doing just that.”
In a letter sent yesterday to Mr. Gonzales, Mr. Specter said he will ask the Bush administration why it didn’t seek expanded congressional authority for the program.
“Was it because you thought you couldn’t get such an expansion as when you said: ‘That was not something that we could likely get?’ ” he asks, referring to a press briefing by Mr. Gonzales in December.
Mr. Specter said he also plans to ask the Bush administration why it bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, the secretive judicial panel designed to consider issuing warrants for surveillance.
In a separate letter, Democrats yesterday called on Mr. Bush to immediately notify Congress of the changes in current law to “permit effective surveillance of suspected terrorists.”
“When you concluded over four years ago that existing law did not provide you sufficient authority to conduct the program, you had an obligation to propose changes in the law to Congress,” wrote Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Harry Reid of Nevada and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Also yesterday, the Senate Democratic “war room” released a “fact check” that said “there is evidence that the spying program is diverting valuable FBI resources and making America less safe.”
Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Judiciary Committee and chairman of the emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, chided the Democrats, asking the rhetorical question, “Are the Democrats just playing politics with national security? You decide.”
The Texas Republican noted that Mr. Reid, the Senate minority leader, “has been briefed on the NSA’s efforts, as have the heads of the intelligence committees in both houses of Congress. Are they now calling for the president to stop intercepting al Qaeda-related calls?”
Charles Hurt contributed to this report.