After weeks of defending his decision to order the National Security Agency to secretly spy on the phone calls and e-mails of Americans with suspected ties to al Qaeda, President Bush said on Wednesday that he welcomes a congressional inquiry into the legality of the program.
Speaking in Louisville, Kentucky, to a typically partisan town hall meeting in a conference center decorated with slogans such as "Winning the War on Terror," Bush stated that it was inevitable that there would be hearings about why he circumvented the legal system of ordering wiretaps, "but that's good for democracy," he said, according to The New York Times. "Just so long as the hearings, as they explore whether or not I had the prerogative to make the decision I made, doesn't tell the enemy what we're doing. See, that's the danger."
Bush, who has repeatedly stated that he is confident he had the authority to order the NSA to conduct searches without warrants within the United States (see "Bush Gave U.S. Agency Authorization To Spy On Americans"), opposed public hearings on the subject until now. With the hearings scheduled to begin next month in the Senate, the president seems resigned to the inquiry (see "Eavesdropping Program Broader Than Bush Suggested; Congress To Investigate "). The Louisville crowd repeatedly applauded his authorization and strong defense of the wiretaps, according to the Times, a move some of Bush's aides said could help rebuild his depressed approval ratings by proving to Americans how far he's willing to go to prevent another domestic terror attack.
"I did so because the enemy still wants to hurt us," Bush said while sidestepping a question about whether the White House would "go after the media" for revealing the secret program. "And it seems like to me that if somebody is talking to al Qaeda, we want to know why." Bush's secret order allowed the NSA to monitor international calls and e-mails without going to a secret court for approval. Former NSA official and whistleblower Russell Tice told ABC News that he believes some parts of the program were illegal and said he is willing to testify about what he knows (see "NSA Whistle-Blower Says Eavesdropping Broke Law").
"I understand people's concerns about government eavesdropping," Bush said. "And I share those concerns as well. So obviously I had to make the difficult decision between balancing civil liberties and, on a limited basis — and I mean limited basis — try to find out the intention of the enemy."
Bush never directly explained why he avoided the system that's in place to approve such wiretaps, though his legal advisers and intelligence aides have said it was too time consuming and would have blocked the NSA from acting immediately on information.
At a White House news conference in December, Bush had brushed aside concerns over the program and said an inquiry could be a potential security threat. "Any public hearings on programs will say to the enemy, 'Here's what they do — adjust,' " Bush said at the time. The president stated that key members of Congress were briefed on the program after it began in 2002. "We gave them a chance to express their disapproval or approval," he said, according to the Times.
Republican Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has scheduled open hearings on the topic, while the Senate Intelligence Committee has said it plans closed hearings.
Despite Bush's assurances that he had a legal right to order the taps, a 14-page legal analysis ordered by California Representative Jane Harman — the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee — from a former CIA general counsel suggested otherwise.
According to the Times, the analysis by Jeffrey H. Smith, now a Washington lawyer, recognized the president's assertion that his power as commander in chief justifies warrantless surveillance, but said the case was "weak" in light of the language and documented purpose of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which requires warrants.
Smith said that the congressional resolution authorizing military force against those who carried out the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks "does not, in my view, justify warrantless electronic surveillance of United States persons in the United States. ... The president was correct in concluding that many of our laws were not adequate to deal with this new threat," Smith added. "He was wrong, however, to conclude that he is therefore free to follow the laws he agrees with and ignore those with which he disagrees."