Monday, January 2, 2006

President Bush yesterday defined as “limited” a once-secret program to intercept al Qaeda-linked calls to and from the United States, saying, “This is a limited program designed to prevent attacks on the United States of America, and I repeat — limited,” Mr. Bush told reporters after visiting wounded troops at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

“It seems logical to me that if we know there’s a phone number associated with al Qaeda or an al Qaeda affiliate, and they’re making phone calls, it makes sense to find out why,” he said.

Mr. Bush repeated his view that a president is empowered by the Constitution to authorize such warrantless intercepts, and said there has been judicial and congressional oversight of the top-secret program.

“I have a responsibility, obviously, to act within the law, which I am doing,” he said. “It’s a program that’s been reviewed constantly by Justice Department officials, a program to which the Congress has been briefed, and a program that is, in my judgment, necessary to win this war and to protect the American people.”

The president criticized anew the leaker who revealed the program to the New York Times, which published a front-page article about it on the day the Senate was scheduled to vote on an extension of the Patriot Act.

“There’s an enemy out there. They read newspapers, they listen to what you write, they listen to what you put on the air, and they react,” said Mr. Bush, who added that the leak of the program causes great harm to national security.

The Justice Department on Friday opened an investigation into the leak, and Congress is preparing hearings to review use of the National Security Agency (NSA) program.

Four senators — two of them Republicans — indicated yesterday they thought congressional hearings are appropriate to consider Mr. Bush’s assertion that he has constitutional and congressional authority to authorize domestic wiretaps without a court order in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“In the first few weeks, we made many concessions in the Congress because we were at war and we were under attack,” said Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “We still have the possibility of that going on, so we don’t want to obviate all of this. But I think we want to see what, in the course of time, really works best.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, a Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, yesterday cautioned against a rush to judgment, and said a congressional inquiry into the program should look at its legality and whether the leaker was really a “whistleblower.”

“To simply divert this whole thing to just looking at the leaker and saying everything else is just fine is typical of this administration,” Mr. Schumer told interviewers on “Fox News Sunday.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, has called for hearings into the program.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who appeared with Mr. Schumer, said the Intelligence Committee should hold closed hearings. He praised the Justice Department for pursuing the leaker “who breached our national security and endangered Americans … .”

“We’re already talking about this entirely too much out in public as a result of these leaks … and it’s endangering our efforts to make Americans more secure.”

A Rasmussen poll last week found that 64 percent of Americans believe the NSA should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States. Twenty-three percent disagreed.

Mr. Bush began the new year at the bedsides of wounded servicemen and women, personally awarding nine Purple Hearts.

“The president, as commander in chief, feels it’s one his most important duties to visit with those who are serving in the armed forces and providing great sacrifice for this important mission,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

The president boarded Marine One, the presidential helicopter, before dawn on his ranch at Crawford, Texas, and flew more than an hour to Randolph Air Force Base at San Antonio. His motorcade drove to Brooke Army Medical Center, a 224-bed hospital at nearby Fort Sam Houston, to meet 50 injured members of various branches of the armed forces and their families.

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