In Speech, Bush Says He Ordered Domestic Spying
By DAVID E. SANGER, NY TIMES
WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, 2005 - President 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 his weekly radio address from the White House, which, in an unusual step, he delivered live, Mr. 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 Mr. Bush had secretly instructed the security agency to intercept the communications of Americans and suspected terrorists 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," Mr. 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.
Mr. Bush's public confirmation Saturday morning 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 the presidency. But he linked it with a forceful assertion of his own authority to act without court approval, making it clear that he planned to resist any effort to infringe on his powers.
As recently as Friday, when he was interviewed by Jim Lehrer of PBS, Mr. 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.
But as the clamor over the revelation rose and Vice President Dick Cheney went to Capitol Hill to counter charges that the program was an illegal assumption of presidential powers, even in a time of war, Mr. Bush and his senior aides decided that it was futile to dismiss the report as "speculation," the word he used in his interview.
In his radio address, Mr. Bush sharply criticized the leak of the information, saying that it had been "improperly provided to news organizations." As a result of the report, he said, "our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk. Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies, and endangers our country."
But Mr. 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 president 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.
Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Friday that "there is no doubt this is inappropriate" and that he would conduct hearings to determine why Mr. Bush took the action.
The president said on 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 them 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda and related terrorist organizations," Mr. Bush said. "This is a highly classified program that is crucial to our national security."
Mr. 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 Mr. Bush's counsel, Harriet E. Miers, whom Mr. 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 Qaeda and related groups," the president 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 Mr. Bush was forced to accept an amendment sponsored by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, 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," Mr. Malinowski said, a view that even some of Mr. Bush's aides and former aides echoed.
Mr. 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. On Sunday evening he has scheduled a live television address from the Oval Office to celebrate the success of the elections in Iraq, and to declare that they are evidence that he made the right decision to depose Saddam Hussein.
The last time Mr. Bush delivered such an address, in the formal setting that he usually tries to avoid, was in March 2003, when he informed the world that he had ordered the Iraq invasion.
As part of the planned address, Mr. Bush appears ready to at least hint at reductions in the troop levels in Iraq, which he has said in a series of four recent speeches on Iraq strategy could be the ultimate result if Iraqi security forces are able to begin to perform more security operations currently conducted by American forces.
Currently, there are roughly 160,000 American 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 Sunnis, the ethnic minority that ruled the country under Mr. Hussein's reign. The American 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 N.S.A., Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American 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," Gen. Casey told reporters in Baghdad.
In Washington, officials said that could enable Mr. Bush to point to deeper cuts in coming months, assuming that the new government forms and the insurgency is held in check. The Army, for example, has prepared plans to hold back one brigade that was scheduled to enter Iraq and to assign some soldiers from another brigade to train Iraqis and guard utilities and other public infrastructure, Pentagon civilian and military officials say. Under these plans, a Germany-based brigade of the First Armored Division, now in Kuwait, would remain there as a quick-reaction force; all or part of the brigade also could be sent home from Kuwait should the security in Iraq situation settle down in the weeks after the vote, officials said. An Army brigade is 3,000 to 5,000 troops, but can have additional supporting units attached to it.
A brigade of the First Infantry Division based at Fort Riley, Kan., would be sent to Iraq in smaller units, and not all at once, under the proposals. Some soldiers from the brigade could be sent to Iraq to help train Iraqi security forces, while others might be sent to Iraq subsequently to guard utilities, infrastructure and other important locations as required next year, Pentagon civilian and military officials said.
It is unclear how far Mr. Bush may be prepared to go in his Oval Office speech to committing to troop reductions; in his four recent speeches on Iraq he said repeatedly that troop levels would decline only as Iraqi and American forces accomplished several objectives: Breaking the back of the insurgency, protecting the new government, and making sure that terror groups cannot use Iraq as a launching pad for new attacks.