WASHINGTON—President Bush acknowledged Saturday that on more than 30 occasions he secretly authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans and other residents and defiantly vowed to continue such domestic eavesdropping "for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups."
Bush's unusually frank admission, made in his weekly radio address, came amid a bipartisan uproar in Congress after The New York Times revealed the secret NSA program in Friday's editions.
Bush said the report relied on unauthorized disclosure of classified information that "damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk." Disclosure of the program helped generate opposition to a renewal of the Patriot Act in the Senate Friday.
"The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time," Bush said in a rare live address. "And the activities conducted under this authorization have helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad."
Bush is scheduled to make a nationally televised address at 9 p.m. EST Sunday to describe his Iraq policy and reiterate the need for a continued U.S. presence in Iraq.
The New York Times account said the NSA secretly monitored—without court approval—international phone calls and e-mail messages that originated in the United States. The newspaper said the NSA eavesdropped on hundreds and perhaps thousands of U.S. citizens and other U.S. residents or tourists.
The president ordered the NSA to act without approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, a special federal tribunal created in 1978 to authorize domestic counterterrorism operations.
"I don't understand why that wasn't used," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. "Congress has clearly provided for what was going on. It seems to be that that procedure should have been followed."
"It's important not to view that activity in a vacuum," he added. "There are a whole number of actions that the president has taken premised on unilateral executive authority that many observers find problematic."
In a Democratic response to the president, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., called Bush's address a "shocking admission" and demanded that he halt the program immediately.
"The president believes that he has the power to override the laws that Congress has passed," Feingold said. "This is not how our democratic system of government works. The president does not get to pick and choose which laws he wants to follow.
"He is a president, not a king."
Bush supporters fell in line behind the president.
"This is war, not a tea party," Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., declared on the House floor Saturday. "The president is doing the right thing and we need to support him."
Bush said he acted within the Constitution and said he drew his authority from his role as commander in chief and from Congress' Joint Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The resolution gave the president broad authority to hunt down the Sept. 11 terrorists and to prevent further terrorist attacks.
The resolution, passed on Sept. 14, 2001, states: "... the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."
Bush said congressional leaders have been apprised of the secret order "more than a dozen times." He said intelligence officials involved in the secret program are specially trained. And he said his orders are reviewed approximately every 45 days and must be approved by the attorney general and his chief White House counsel.
"Each review is based on a fresh intelligence assessment of terrorist threats to the continuity of our government and the threat of catastrophic damage to our homeland," he said.
Bush also criticized senators who blocked a vote Friday on a renewal of the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law that is set to expire on Dec. 31. The law, passed a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, made it easier for the FBI and CIA to share intelligence and gave federal authorities more power to conduct secret searches, tap phone calls, monitor e-mails and seize personal records ranging from financial documents to library lending lists.
Senators blocked a vote on final passage and left the fate of the law in limbo following complaints that the new legislation didn't go far enough to protect civil liberties.
Congress is scheduled to leave for the Christmas holidays next week and not return until late January.
"The terrorist threat to our country will not expire in two weeks," Bush said. "The terrorists want to attack America again, and inflict even greater damage than they did on September the 11th."
But Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Democrats have offered to extend the current law for a short time to allow lawmakers to negotiate further. "For the Bush Administration and Republican congressional leaders to allow the Patriot Act to expire would be irresponsible," he said.
"Fear mongering and false choices do little to advance either the security or liberty of Americans," he added.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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