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Bush defends NSA spy orders and vows to continue eavesdropping program

David E. Sanger, The New York Times | December 18 2005

WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush acknowledged on Saturday that he had ordered the National Security Agency to conduct an electronic eavesdropping program in the United States without first obtaining warrants, and said he would continue the highly classified program because it was "a vital tool in our war against the terrorists."
In an unusual step, Bush delivered a live weekly radio address from the White House in which he defended his action as "fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities."

Bush also lashed out at senators, both Democrats and Republicans, who voted on Friday to block the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, which expanded the president's power to conduct surveillance in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The revelation that Bush had secretly instructed the security agency to intercept the communications of Americans and terrorist suspects inside the United States, without first obtaining warrants from a secret court that oversees intelligence matters, was cited by several senators as a reason for their vote.

"In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment," Bush said from behind a lectern in the Roosevelt Room, next to the Oval Office.

He said the Senate's action "endangers the lives of our citizens," and added that "the terrorist threat to our country will not expire in two weeks," a reference to the approaching deadline of Dec. 31, when critical provisions of the current law will end.

His statement came just a day before he was scheduled to make a rare Oval Office address to the nation, at 6 p.m. today celebrating the Iraqi elections and describing what his press secretary on Saturday called the "path forward."

Bush's public confirmation on Saturday of the existence of one of the country's most secret intelligence programs, which had been known to only a select number of his aides, was a rare moment in his presidency. Few presidents have publicly confirmed the existence of heavily classified intelligence programs like this one.

His admission was reminiscent of Dwight Eisenhower's in 1960 that he had authorized U-2 flights over the Soviet Union after Francis Gary Powers was shot down on a reconnaissance mission. At the time, President Eisenhower declared that "no one wants another Pearl Harbor," an argument Bush echoed on Saturday in defending his program as a critical component of antiterrorism efforts.

But the revelation of the domestic spying program, which the administration temporarily suspended last year because of concerns about its legality, came in a leak. Bush said the information had been "improperly provided to news organizations."

As recently as Friday, when he was interviewed by Jim Lehrer of PBS, Bush refused to confirm the report that day in The New York Times that in 2002 he authorized the domestic spying operation by the security agency, which is usually barred from intercepting domestic communications. While not denying the report, he called it "speculation" and said he did not "talk about ongoing intelligence operations."

But as the clamor over the revelation rose and Vice President Dick Cheney Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, went to Capitol Hill to counter charges that the program was an illegal assumption of presidential powers, even in a time of war, Bush and his senior aides decided to abandon that approach.

"There was an interest in saying more about it, but everyone recognized its highly classified nature," one senior administration official said, speaking on background because, he said, the White House wanted the president to be the only voice on the issue. "This is directly taking on the critics. The Democrats are now in the position of supporting our efforts to protect Americans, or defend positions that could weaken our nation's security."

Not surprisingly, Democrats saw the issue differently. "Our government must follow the laws and respect the Constitution while it protects Americans' security and liberty," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and the Senate's leading critic of the Patriot Act.

In his statement on Saturday, Bush did not address the main question directed at him by some members of Congress on Friday: why he felt it necessary to circumvent the system established under current law, which allows the administration to seek emergency warrants, in secret, from the court that oversees intelligence operations. His critics said that under that law, the administration could have obtained the same information.

Bush said Saturday that he acted in the aftermath of the Sept.11 attacks because the United States had failed to detect communications that might have tipped it off to the plot. He said that two of the hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon, Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, "communicated while they were in the United States to other members of al-Qaida who were overseas. But we didn't know they were here, until it was too late."

As a result, "I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al-Qaida and related terrorist organizations," Bush said. "This is a highly classified program that is crucial to our national security."

Bush said that every 45 days the program was reviewed, based on "a fresh intelligence assessment of terrorist threats to the continuity of our government and the threat of catastrophic damage to our homeland." That review involves the attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, and Bush's counsel, Harriet E. Miers, whom Bush unsuccessfully tried to nominate to the Supreme Court this year.

"I have reauthorized this program more than 30 times since the Sept. 11 attacks, and I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups," Bush said. He said congressional leaders had been repeatedly briefed on the program, and that intelligence officials "receive extensive training to ensure they perform their duties consistent with the letter and intent of the authorization."

The Patriot Act vote in the Senate, coming a day after Bush was forced to accept an amendment sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that places limits on interrogation techniques that can be used by Central Intelligence Agency officers and other non-military personnel, was a setback to the president's assertion of broad powers. In both cases, he lost a number of Republicans along with almost all Democrats.

"This reflects a complete transformation of the debate in America over torture," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "After the attacks, no politician was heard expressing any questions about the executive branch's treatment of captured terrorists." That has now "changed fundamentally," Malinowski said, a view that even some of Bush's aides and former aides echoed.

Bush's unusual radio address is part of a broader effort this weekend to regain the initiative, after weeks in which the political ground has shifted under his feet. The Oval Office speech this evening, a formal setting that he usually tries to avoid, is his first there since March 2003, when he informed the world that he had ordered the Iraq invasion.

White House aides say they intend for this speech to be a bookmark in the Iraq experience: As part of the planned address, Bush appears ready to at least hint at reductions in the troop levels in Iraq, which he has said in four recent speeches on Iraq strategy could be the ultimate result if Iraqi security forces are able to begin to perform more security operations now conducted by U.S. forces.

Currently, there are roughly 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a number that was intended to keep order for Friday's parliamentary elections, which were conducted with little violence and an unexpectedly heavy turnout of Sunni Arabs, the ethnic minority that ruled the country under Saddam's reign. The U.S. troop level was already scheduled to decline to 138,000 - what the military calls its "baseline" level of troops - after the election.

But on Friday, as the debate in Washington swirled over the president's order to the NSA, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, hinted that further reductions may be on the way. "We're doing our assessment, and I make some recommendations in the coming weeks about whether I think it's prudent to go below the baseline," Casey told reporters in Baghdad.


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