President Bush admitted Saturday he personally authorized a secret eavesdropping program in the U.S. more than 30 times since the Sept. 11 attacks and vowed to keep doing it in the face of mounting criticism over the program’s violation of American freedom and rights to privacy.
“This is a highly classified program that is crucial to our national security,” he claimed in a radio address delivered live from the White House’s Roosevelt Room.
Capitol Hill Blue first revealed details of use of the Pentagon and the National Security Agency to spy on Americans in June of 2004. The New York Times reported it this week and admitted that it had withheld the story for a year at the White House’s request.
“This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power, under our laws and Constitution, to protect them and their civil liberties and that is exactly what I will continue to do as long as I am president of the United States,” Bush said.
Angry members of Congress have demanded an explanation of the program and whether the monitoring by the National Security Agency violates civil liberties.
Defending the program, Bush said in his address that it is used only to intercept the international communications of people inside the United States who have been determined to have “a clear link” to al-Qaida or related terrorist organizations.
He said the program is reviewed every 45 days, using fresh threat assessments, legal reviews by the Justice Department, White House counsel and others, and information from previous activities under the program.
Without identifying specific lawmakers, Bush said congressional leaders have been briefed more than a dozen times on the program’s activities.
The president also said the intelligence officials involved in the monitoring receive extensive training to make sure civil liberties are not violated.
Appearing angry at times during his eight-minute address, Bush left no doubt that he will continue authorizing the program.
“I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups,” he said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he would call congressional hearings as soon as possible. Warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens is “wrong, and it can’t be condoned at all,” he said.
“I want to know precisely what they did: 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 … and we will go from there,” Specter said.
“It calls into question the integrity and credibility of our nation’s commitment to the rule of law,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the intelligence and judiciary committees.