President Bush yesterday refused to confirm or deny reports that the National Security Agency is eavesdropping on Americans, calling it “a program that’s important not to talk about.”
“And the reason why is that we’re at war with an enemy that still wants to attack,” he told PBS. “After 9/11 I told the American people I would do everything in my power to protect the country, within the law, and that’s exactly how I conduct my presidency.”
Mr. Bush was reacting to a report in the New York Times that said he signed a secret order in 2002 allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on the phone conversations of Americans who might be communicating with al Qaeda. Such eavesdropping would not require court warrants.
A senior intelligence official said last night that Mr. Bush has personally authorized the eavesdropping program more than three dozen times.
The official told the Associated Press that the eavesdropping was narrowly designed to go after potential terrorist threats in the United States.
Each time the program was renewed, the White House counsel and the attorney general certified its lawfulness, the official said. Mr. Bush then signed the authorization.
At each review, government officials have provided a fresh assessment of the terrorist threat, showing that there is a catastrophic risk to the country or government, the official said.
“Only if those conditions apply do we even begin to think about this,” he said.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said if a new electronic-eavesdropping program is in effect, it would be “aimed at saving lives.”
“We have made a number of improvements relating to our intelligence in the aftermath of September 11th so that we can connect the dots and prevent attacks from happening, go after and disrupt plots,” Mr. McClellan said.
He emphasized that Mr. Bush did not act unilaterally.
“Some people suggest that the president’s just going off doing certain things,” the spokesman said. “Well, there’s congressional oversight in place, there’s other oversight in place. There’s our Constitution. There’s the laws. And we abide by them.”
The report drew strong reaction on Capitol Hill.
“Surveillance of citizens in the United States? That’s wrong and it can’t be condoned at all,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican. “And the Judiciary Committee’s going to undertake oversight.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the report suggests “this administration went beyond the pale and authorization of the law to eavesdrop on Americans by the thousands in the name of security.”
Mr. Bush said the case boils down to two crucial questions.
“Are we doing everything we can to protect the people?” he said. “Are we protecting civil liberties as we do so? And the answer to both is yes, we are.”
This story is based in part on wire service reports