No apologies for U.S. eavesdropping

Posted in United States | 19-Dec-05 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears on 'Fox News Sunday' in Washington December 18, 2005.
WASHINGTON The Bush administration mounted a broad defense Sunday, both of the war in Iraq and of the president's tactics in the domestic fight against terrorists that Democrats said might be illegal.

"We simply can't be in a situation in which the president is not responding to this different kind of war on terrorism," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, reflecting President George W. Bush's unapologetic defense a day earlier of eavesdropping without warrants in the United States.

As Vice President Dick Cheney flew Sunday to Iraq to congratulate voters on their elections last week, Bush prepared a rare Oval Office address to celebrate those elections and to talk to Americans about "what we've accomplished and where we're headed," said his spokesman, Scott McClellan. It was Bush's first speech from that office since he announced in March 2003 that he had ordered the invasion of Iraq, and his fourth speech on security matters in six days.

The White House has begun an unusually intense campaign in recent weeks to reassure Americans, whose confidence in Bush's war leadership has declined, and to try to halt a disputatious new approach by Congress to the war and to certain tools the administration has used to fight terrorism.

With doubts mounting, said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, Bush needed to explain that "we have a lot of obstacles ahead of us; it is a long, difficult process for any nation to be able to become a democracy." He said on ABC-TV that the president again should acknowledge errors in Iraq while assuring that "we can and will prevail."

Rice appeared on television talk shows to defend the newly disclosed government program of spying on suspects in the United States. The 2001 attacks injected a "certain urgency" into the need for timely surveillance, she said, and she insisted that Bush had acted with full legal authority.

But two Democratic senators, Carl Levin of Michigan and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, said they believed that Bush might have broken the law.

"The issue here is whether the president of the United States is putting himself above the law," Feingold, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on CNN, "and I believe he has done so here." Levin, on NBC-TV, called the program "extremely dangerous."

The Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who on Friday had called the surveillance "a violation of our law beyond any question," moderated his tone Sunday, saying, "Whether it was legal, I think, is a matter that has to be examined." But he said he would hold Senate hearings to look into the issue.

Rice spoke a day after Bush acknowledged having ordered the National Security Agency to go beyond its core mission of intercepting foreign electronic communications and to eavesdrop inside the United States.

Bush has had a difficult time keeping public attention focused on the historic nature of the Iraqi elections. Such news has had to compete for attention with recent congressional challenges to the administration, apparently engendering frustration at the White House and perhaps provoking the decision for Bush to speak live Saturday and again Sunday.

The administration's latest legislative setback came Friday - hours after The New York Times revealed the secret surveillance program - when Democratic senators and a handful of Republicans blocked reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the legislation passed in late 2001 that expanded presidential powers to conduct surveillance with warrants.

A day earlier, Bush had been forced to accept an amendment sponsored by McCain to limit the interrogation techniques that CIA officers and other nonmilitary personnel can use.

These developments left Rice on the defensive Sunday, particularly over the decision to allow secret domestic surveillance.

Critics of such monitoring note that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows secret surveillance when approved by a special court that operates inside the Justice Department. This court has rarely rejected administration requests.

But Rice asserted that the 1978 act had not anticipated anything like the 2001 terror attacks and that more aggressive surveillance might have helped prevent them. "We don't ever want to be caught again in a situation in which we were before 9/11," Rice said on Fox-TV.

Bush said Saturday that as a result of the revelation, "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."

He called the eavesdropping program "a vital tool in our war against the terrorists" and defended it as being "fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities."

Rice said that congressional leaders of both parties had been briefed at the program's inception. But Democrats bridled Sunday at what they said was a White House effort to spread responsibility.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, acknowledged having been briefed on the program this year, but added on Fox: "The president can't pass the buck on this one. This is his program. He's commander in chief."

McCain, the Republican whose unbending stance on torture demonstrated his willingness to take on the administration, carefully avoided criticizing the surveillance program Sunday when he was asked about it.

He reminded a questioner that "September 11, as we know, changed everything."