U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on Sunday said President George W. Bush’s secret order to allow spying on people in the United States was legal and necessary to prevent terrorism, but lawmakers from both parties called for Congress to investigate.
In an interview with ABC’s “Nightline,” Cheney said the president acted within his constitutional authority as commander in chief and that the program was under constant legal review.
“It is a program that is, by every effort we’ve been able to make, consistent with the statutes and with the law. It’s the kind of capability if we’d had before 9/11 might have led us to be able to prevent 9/11,” Cheney said in a transcript released on Sunday.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” said disclosure of the eavesdropping could jeopardize terrorism investigations.
“The more we get the exposure of these very sensitive programs, the more it undermines our ability to follow terrorists, to know about their activities,” she said.
Rice said Bush used his authority so “people could not communicate inside the United States about terrorist activity with people outside the United States, leaving us vulnerable to terrorist attack.”
After initially refusing to comment on a New York Times report on the covert program, Bush said Saturday that after the September 11 attacks, he had authorized the National Security Agency “to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations.”
Rice reiterated Bush’s statement that the wiretapping of telephone conversations and other communications was legal and did not violate the U.S. Constitution.
A 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, makes it illegal to spy on U.S. citizens in the United States without court approval.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Rice said the program was carefully controlled, with a limited scope focusing only on those believed to have links to al Qaeda terrorists.
Cheney told ABC, “It has been reviewed repeatedly by the Justice Department every single time it’s been renewed, to make certain that it is, in fact, managed in a manner that’s fully consistent with the Constitution and with our statutes.”
Cheney said that a few members of Congress had been briefed on the program more than a dozen times.
However, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid disputed the administration’s contention that members of Congress had been informed.
Reid was one of several lawmakers of both parties who have backed a planned hearing on the issue by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican. Many lawmakers have questioned whether domestic spying violates the U.S. Constitution.
“Congress has not been involved in setting up this program. This is totally a program of the president and the vice president of the United States,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on Fox. He said he was briefed on it only a few months ago, long after the program was reported to have been started.
Specter said he wanted to know what legal authority the White House had used.
“Let’s not jump to too many conclusions. Let’s look at it analytically. Let’s have oversight hearings. And let’s find out exactly what went on,” he said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina echoed the call for an investigation and said he knew of no legal basis for the White House to circumvent existing laws. “It is about winning the war, adhering to the values that we’re fighting for. And you can’t set those values aside in the name of expediency,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said, “I take him (Bush) at his word” that the order was critical to saving lives and consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution.”
“The president, I think, has the right to do this, and yet, I don’t know why he didn’t go” through court procedures, McCain told ABC’s “This Week.”
“I know that the leaders of Congress were consulted, and that’s a very important part of this equation,” McCain said.
Saturday, the president said he had reauthorized the eavesdropping program 30 times since September 11 and intends to continue it “for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al Qaeda and related groups.”