Bush Approved Eavesdropping, Official Says
By KATHERINE SHRADER, Associated Press Writer
President Bush has personally authorized a secretive eavesdropping program in the United States more than three dozen times since October 2001, a senior intelligence official said Friday night.
The disclosure follows angry demands by lawmakers earlier in the day for congressional inquiries into whether the monitoring by the highly secretive National Security Agency violated civil liberties.
"There is no doubt that this is inappropriate," declared Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (news, bio, voting record) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He promised hearings early next year.
Bush on Friday refused to discuss whether he had authorized such domestic spying without obtaining warrants from a court, saying that to comment would tie his hands in fighting terrorists.
In a broad defense of the program put forward hours later, however, a senior intelligence official told The Associated Press that the eavesdropping was narrowly designed to go after possible terrorist threats in the United States.
The official said that, since October 2001, the program has been renewed more than three dozen times. Each time, the White House counsel and the attorney general certified the lawfulness of the program, the official said. Bush then signed the authorizations.
During the reviews, government officials have also 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. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the intelligence operation.
"The president has authorized NSA to fully use its resources — let me underscore this now — consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution to defend the United States and its citizens," the official said, adding that congressional leaders have also been briefed more than a dozen times.
Senior administration officials asserted the president would do everything in his power to protect the American people while safeguarding civil liberties.
"I will make this point," Bush said in an interview with "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." "That whatever I do to protect the American people — and I have an obligation to do so — that we will uphold the law, and decisions made are made understanding we have an obligation to protect the civil liberties of the American people."
The surveillance, disclosed in Friday's New York Times, is said to allow the agency to monitor international calls and e-mail messages of people inside the United States. But the paper said the agency would still seek warrants to snoop on purely domestic communications — for example, Americans' calls between New York and California.
"I want to know precisely what they did," Specter said. "How NSA utilized their technical equipment, whose conversations they overheard, how many conversations they overheard, what they did with the material, what purported justification there was."
Sen. Russ Feingold (news, bio, voting record), D-Wis., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said, "This shocking revelation ought to send a chill down the spine of every American."
Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush chief of staff Andrew Card went to the Capitol Friday to meet with congressional leaders and the top members of the intelligence committees, who are often briefed on spy agencies' most classified programs. Members and their aides would not discuss the subject of the closed sessions.
The intelligence official would not provide details on the operations or examples of success stories. He said senior national security officials are trying to fix problems raised by the Sept. 11 commission, which found that two of the suicide hijackers were communicating from San Diego with al-Qaida operatives overseas.
"We didn't know who they were until it was too late," the official said.
Some intelligence experts who believe in broad presidential power argued that Bush would have the authority to order these searches without warrants under the Constitution.
In a case unrelated to the NSA's domestic eavesdropping, the administration has argued that the president has vast authority to order intelligence surveillance without warrants "of foreign powers or their agents."
"Congress cannot by statute extinguish that constitutional authority," the Justice Department said in a 2002 legal filing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review.
Other intelligence veterans found difficulty with the program in light of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed after the intelligence community came under fire for spying on Americans. That law gives government — with approval from a secretive U.S. court — the authority to conduct covert wiretaps and surveillance of suspected terrorists and spies.
In a written statement, NSA spokesman Don Weber said the agency would not provide any information on the reported surveillance program. "We do not discuss actual or alleged operational issues," he said.
Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, former NSA general counsel, said it was troubling that such a change would have been made by executive order, even if it turns out to be within the law.
Parker, who has no direct knowledge of the program, said the effect could be corrosive. "There are programs that do push the edge, and would be appropriate, but will be thrown out," she said.
Prior to 9/11, the NSA typically limited its domestic surveillance activities to foreign embassies and missions — and obtained court orders for such investigations. Much of its work was overseas, where thousands of people with suspected terrorist ties or other valuable intelligence may be monitored.
The report surfaced as the administration and its GOP allies on Capitol Hill were fighting to save provisions of the expiring USA Patriot Act that they believe are key tools in the fight against terrorism. An attempt to rescue the approach favored by the White House and Republicans failed on a procedural vote.
Senate Rejects Extension of Patriot Act
By DAVID ESPO, AP
Special Correspondent In a stinging defeat for President Bush, Senate Democrats blocked passage Friday of a new Patriot Act to combat terrorism at home, depicting the measure as a threat to the constitutional liberties of innocent Americans.
Republicans spurned calls for a short-term measure to prevent the year-end expiration of law enforcement powers first enacted in the anxious days after Sept. 11, 2001. "The president will not sign such an extension," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and lawmakers on each side of the issue blamed the other for congressional gridlock on the issue.
The Senate voted 52-47 to advance a House-passed bill to a final vote, eight short of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster backed by nearly all Senate Democrats and a handful of the 55 Republicans.
"We can come together to give the government the tools it needs to fight terrorism and protect the rights and freedoms of innocent citizens," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., arguing that provisions permitting government access to confidential personal data lacked safeguards to protect the innocent.
"We need to be more vigilant," agreed Sen. John Sununu (news, bio, voting record), a Republican from New Hampshire, where the state motto is "Live Free or Die." He quoted Benjamin Franklin: "Those that would give up essential liberty in pursuit of a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security."But Frist likened the bill's opponents to those who "have called for a retreat and defeat strategy in Iraq. That's the wrong strategy in Iraq. It is the wrong strategy here at home."
Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., said, "If 90-plus percent of the Democrats vote against cloture, and 90-plus percent of the Republicans vote for cloture, it is hard to argue it is not partisan." Cloture is a Senate term that refers to ending a filibuster.
In a statement, Bush said terrorists "want to attack America again and kill the innocent and inflict even greater damage" than four years ago. "Congress has a responsibility not to take away this vital tool that law enforcement and intelligence have used."
Congressional officials pointed to a provision in the existing law that said even if it expired, law enforcement agencies could continue to wield Patriot Act powers in existing investigations of all known groups such as al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Zarqawi group in Iraq.
Justice Department officials said no existing wiretap would have to be turned off. But they said expiration of the law would create confusion about whether information gleaned after Jan. 1 could be shared, even if it stemmed from an ongoing investigation.
Much of the controversy involved powers granted to law enforcement agencies to gain access to a wealth of personal data, including library and medical records, in secret, as part of investigations into suspected terrorist activity.
The bill also includes a four-year extension of the government's ability to conduct roving wiretaps — which may involve multiple phones — and continues the authority to wiretap "lone wolf" terrorists who may operate on their own, without control from a foreign agent or power.
Yet another provision, which applies to all criminal cases, gives the government 30 days to provide notice that it has carried out a search warrant. Current law requires the government to disclose search warrants in a reasonable period of time.
During debate, several Democrats pointed to a New York Times report that Bush had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on individuals inside the United States without first securing permission from the courts.
"Today's revelation makes it crystal clear that we have to be very careful, very careful," said Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y.
No Republican defended the reported practice, and the bill's chief Republican supporter joined in the criticism. "There is no doubt that this is inappropriate," said Sen. Arlen Specter (news, bio, voting record), R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He pledged hearings in 2006.
Under the measure the Senate was considering, law enforcement officials could continue to obtain secret access to a variety of personal records from businesses, hospitals and other organizations, including libraries.
Access is obtained by order of a secret court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Specter told the bill's critics that before such permission is granted, a judge would have to "make a determination on a factual showing that there is a terrorism investigation that does involve foreigners."
On a second issue covered under the bill, a so-called National Security Letter, government investigators could continue to gain access to a more limited range of personal records without a court order of any kind.
Specter said the legislation permitted the recipient of a letter to appeal in court. "The essence of the protection of civil rights ... has been that you interpose an impartial magistrate between the policeman and the citizens. That protection is given," he said.
The recipient of such an order is barred from disclosing it, and Sununu said that in order to overturn the gag order, "you have to show...bad faith on the part of the federal government, and no individual or business will ever be able to show that."
On the Senate vote, two Democrats supported the GOP-led effort to advance the bill to a final vote, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Sununu and GOP Sens. Larry Craig of Idaho, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted to block the measure. Frist initially voted to advance the bill, then switched to opposition purely as a parliamentary move that enables him to call for a second vote at some point in the future.
On a separate issue, the House called for the Bush administration to give Congress details of secret detention facilities overseas. The vote was 228-187.