Bush visits NSA to bolster support for surveillance

Director of the National Security Agency Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, left, and Director of NSA Threat Operations Center William Marshall, center, give President Bush a tour of the National Security Agency on Wednesday in Fort Meade, Md.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 11:06 p.m.
President Bush paid an in-person visit to the ultra-secret National Security Agency on Wednesday to underscore the importance of his controversial order authorizing domestic surveillance without warrants in the terrorism era.
"We must learn the intentions of the enemies before they strike," Bush said. "That's what they do here. They work to protect us."
Bush's stop here at the heavily secured site of the super-secret spy agency in suburban Maryland had two purposes. He was aiming to boost the morale of the people carrying out the work of a 4-year-old domestic spying program in which the government monitors the international communications of people inside the United States whom it believes to have connections to the terrorist network al-Qaida. The president is also leading a wide-ranging campaign by his administration to defend the program, under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike who argue that it may be illegal.
Senate hearings on whether Bush has, as he claims, the authority to allow the program begin in less than two weeks.
"We've seen that part of the terrorist strategy is to place operatives inside of our country. They blend in with the civilian population. They get their orders from overseas and then they emerge to strike from within," he told reporters, after speaking behind closed doors to NSA employees and going on a tour of the agency.
"We must be able to quickly detect when someone linked to al-Qaida is communicating with someone inside of America," he said.
Democratic and other critics maintain that Bush already had that authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed by Congress in 1978, and that he could have proceeded with intelligence eavesdropping deemed emergency as long as he notified a FISA court within 72 hours to seek approval after the fact.
Bush has argued that process isn't sufficiently flexible.
At the NSA, he also repeated his argument that he has the authority "both from the Constitution and the Congress" to go around FISA to allow the surveillance. He contends Congress gave him the authority when it passed a resolution allowing him to use force in the war on terror and that the Constitution gives him the power as commander-in-chief.
"The American people expect me to protect their lives and their civil liberties," he said.
But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., issued a blistering attack on Bush's explanations.
"Obviously, I support tracking down terrorists. I think that's our obligation. But I think it can be done in a lawful way," she said. "Their argument that it's rooted in the authority to go after al-Qaida is far-fetched. Their argument that it's rooted in the Constitution inherently is kind of strange because we have FISA and FISA operated very effectively and it wasn't that hard to get their permission."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he's eager to learn more. Asked on NBC's "Today" show if Bush broke the law, McCain replied, "I don't know. I want to be perfectly clear. I don't know the answer. That's why I welcome the hearings."
Bush pledged to continue to reauthorize the program as long as a threat exists, and urged Americans not to be lulled into thinking that the threat from terrorism is over because there has not been an attack on U.S. soil since 2001.
"I understand there are some in America who say well this can't be true - there are still people willing to attack," he said. "All I would ask them to do is listen to the words of Osama bin Laden and take them seriously. When he says he's going to hurt the American people again, or try to, he means it."
The administration has aggressively stepped up its defense of the program in recent days.
In Manhattan, Kan., on Monday, Bush brushed aside arguments by critics that he broke the law by authorizing domestic eavesdropping without a warrant, saying he was doing what Congress authorized him to do to protect Americans from terrorist attacks. His attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, repeated that argument in a speech Tuesday.
Bush's political team also has signaled that the eavesdropping program will be a campaign issue in November, part of a broader strategy to cast Democrats as weak on terrorism.
A majority of people - 56 percent - said the Bush administration should be required to get a warrant before monitoring phone conversations and Internetcommunications between American citizens and suspected terrorists.
according to an AP-Ipsos poll.earlier this month.
But when people have been asked in other polls to balance their worries about terrorist threats against their worries about intrusions on privacy, fighting terror has been shown to be the higher priority.

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