President Bush yesterday called the recent leak about a top-secret U.S. program to spy on suspected terrorists a “shameful act,” and rebuked Senate Democrats for their “inexcusable” effort to block renewal of the Patriot Act.
Three days after the New York Times reported about the covert spy program, the president said surveillance of international communications “of people with known links to al Qaeda” is warranted by the September 11 attacks and said he has “the constitutional responsibility and the constitutional authority to protect our country.”
Addressing critics who say the National Security Agency (NSA) program — created a month after the 2001 attacks — violates civil liberties, Mr. Bush said he “absolutely” has the “legal authority” to approve the surveillance.
“We know that a two-minute phone conversation between somebody linked to al Qaeda here and an operative overseas could lead directly to the loss of thousands of lives,” he said at a press conference.
“I’ve reauthorized this program more than 30 times since the September the 11th attacks, and I intend to do so … for so long as the nation faces the continuing threat of an enemy that wants to kill American citizens.”
The New York Times reported Friday that the NSA was given authority to monitor the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of suspected terrorist agents within the United States.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said yesterday that Congress had granted Mr. Bush broad powers to order domestic surveillance after the attacks.
“Our position is that the authorization to use military force, which was passed by the Congress shortly after September 11, constitutes that authority,” Mr. Gonzales said. He called the monitoring “probably the most classified program that exists in the United States government.”
Gen. Michael Hayden, deputy national intelligence director who was head of the NSA when the program began in October 2001, said, “This program has been successful in detecting and preventing attacks inside the United States.”
Only a handful of people knew of the program — top officials in the White House, the leaders of the House and Senate, the senior lawmakers on the two chambers’ intelligence committees and a small number of officials within the National Security Agency.
“My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war,” the president said. “You’ve got to understand — and I hope the American people understand — there is still an enemy that would like to strike the United States of America, and they’re very dangerous. And the discussion about how we try to find them will enable them to adjust.”
Mr. Bush said he has not ordered an investigation into the leak, but said, “There’s a process that goes on inside the Justice Department about leaks. I presume that process is moving forward.”
A Department of Justice official said the agency “does not comment on or confirm the existence of criminal investigations.”
“All matters referred to the department by the intelligence agencies for purposes of further investigation are taken seriously and thoroughly reviewed,” the official said.
Democrats immediately criticized the president’s remarks.
“Where does he find in the Constitution the authority to tap the wires and the phones of American citizens without any court oversight?” asked Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said Mr. Bush’s interpretation of the Constitution was “incorrect and dangerous.”
In the press conference, the president also criticized Senate Democrats for blocking a bill that would extend the Patriot Act, which expanded the power of law-enforcement officials to track terrorists.
“It is inexcusable for the United States Senate to let this Patriot Act expire,” Mr. Bush said. “I want senators from New York or Los Angeles or Las Vegas to go home and explain why these cities are safer. It is inexcusable to say, on the one hand, ‘Connect the dots,’ and not give us a chance to do so.”
The president singled out Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid for his sternest criticism, charging that the Nevada Democrat “boasted to a group of political supporters that the Senate Democrats had ‘killed the Patriot Act.’”
Mr. Reid fired back, accusing the president for a “dereliction of duty” and accusing Mr. Bush and Senate Republicans of “playing politics with the Patriot Act.”
Key provisions of the Patriot Act are due to expire in 11 days. Mr. Bush yesterday noted that most of the senators blocking renewal of the measure voted for the legislation in 2001.
“These senators need to explain why they thought the Patriot Act was a vital tool after the September the 11th attacks, but now think it’s no longer necessary,” he said.
Meanwhile yesterday, some senators disputed Mr. Bush’s assertion that Congress conducted oversight of the NSA surveillance operation. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, yesterday released a handwritten letter he said he sent to Vice President Dick Cheney in 2003, challenging the details of the eavesdropping.
Mr. Rockefeller said in his letter — handwritten because the information was so classified that he couldn’t share it with staff members or write it on his office computer — that the administration only gave a small amount of information to a select group of senators who were told they couldn’t talk with anyone else about it. That, he said, made oversight of the legal issues or technology involved impossible.
“The activities we discussed raise profound oversight issues,” Mr. Rockefeller wrote, noting later in the two-page letter that he was securing a copy in the intelligence committee offices in order to record his concerns.
Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle also released a statement yesterday saying that the briefings he received from 2002 to 2004 “omitted key details” and that he “raised significant concern” over the program at the time.
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.