WASHINGTON, D.C. — Facing angry criticism and challenges to his authority in Congress, President Bush on Saturday unapologetically defended his administration's right to conduct secret post-Sept. 11 spying in the United States as "critical to saving American lives."
Bush said congressional leaders had been briefed on the operation more than a dozen times. That included Democrats as well as Republicans in the House and Senate, a GOP lawmaker said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she had been told on several occasions that Bush had authorized unspecified activities by the National Security Agency, the nation's largest spy agency. She said she had expressed strong concerns at the time, and that Bush's statement Saturday "raises serious questions as to what the activities were and whether the activities were lawful."
Often appearing angry in an eight-minute address, the president made clear he has no intention of halting his authorizations of the monitoring activities and said public disclosure of the program by the news media had endangered Americans.
Bush's willingness to publicly acknowledge a highly classified spying program was a stunning development for a president known to dislike disclosure of even the most mundane inner workings of his White House. Just a day earlier he had refused to talk about it.
Since October 2001, the super-secret National Security Agency has eavesdropped on the international phone calls and e-mails of people inside the United States without court-approved warrants. Bush said steps like these would help fight terrorists like those who involved in the Sept. 11 plot.
"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. "And the activities conducted under this authorization have helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad."
News of the program came at a particularly damaging and delicate time.
Already, the administration was under fire for allegedly operating secret prisons in Eastern Europe and shipping suspected terrorists to other countries for harsh interrogations.
The NSA program's existence surfaced as Bush was fighting to save the expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the domestic anti-terrorism law enacted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Democrats and a few Republicans who say the law gives so much latitude to law enforcement officials that it threatens Americans' constitutional liberties succeeded Friday in stalling its renewal.
So Bush scrapped the version of his weekly radio address that he had already taped — on the recent elections in Iraq — and delivered a live speech from the Roosevelt Room in which he lashed out at the senators blocking the Patriot Act as irresponsible and confirmed the NSA program.
Bush said his authority to approve what he called a "vital tool in our war against the terrorists" came from his constitutional powers as commander in chief. He said that he has personally signed off on reauthorizations more than 30 times.
"The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties," Bush said.
"And that is exactly what I will continue to do, so long as I'm the president of the United States."
James Bamford, author of two books on the NSA, said the program could be problematic because it bypasses a special court set up by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize eavesdropping on suspected terrorists.
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"I didn't hear him specify any legal right, except his right as president, which in a democracy doesn't make much sense," Bamford said in an interview. "Today, what Bush said is he went around the law, which is a violation of the law — which is illegal."
Retired Adm. Bobby Inman, who led the NSA from 1977 to 1981, said Bush's authorization of the eavesdropping would have been justified in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks "because at that point you couldn't get a court warrant unless you could show probable cause."
"Once the Patriot Act was in place, I am puzzled what was the need to continue outside the court," Inman added. But he said, "If the fact is valid that Congress was notified, there will be no consequences."
Susan Low Bloch, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University Law Center, said Bush was "taking a hugely expansive interpretation of the Constitution and the president's powers under the Constitution.
That view was echoed by congressional Democrats.
"I tell you, he's President George Bush, not King George Bush. This is not the system of government we have and that we fought for," Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., told The Associated Press.
Added Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.: "The Bush administration seems to believe it is above the law."
Bush defended the program as narrowly designed and used "consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution." He said it is employed only to intercept the international communications of people inside the U.S. who have been determined to have "a clear link" to al-Qaida or related terrorist organizations.
Government officials have refused to provide details, including defining the standards used to establish such a link or saying how many people are being monitored.
The program is reviewed every 45 days, using fresh threat assessments, legal reviews, and information from previous activities under the program, the president said. Intelligence officials involved in the monitoring receive extensive training in civil liberties, he said.
Bush said leaders in Congress have been briefed more than a dozen times. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., told House Republicans that those informed were the top Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate and of each chamber's intelligence committees. "They've been through the whole thing," Hoekstra said.
The president had harsh words for those who revealed the program to the media, saying they acted improperly and illegally. The surveillance was first disclosed in Friday's New York Times.
"As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have," Bush said. "The unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk."
Bush has more to worry about on Capitol Hill than his difficulties with the Patriot Act. Lawmakers have begun challenging Bush on his Iraq policy, reflecting polling that shows half of the country is not behind him on the war.
On Sunday, the president was continuing his effort to reverse that by giving his fifth major speech in less than three weeks on Iraq.
One bright spot for the White House was a new poll showing that a strong majority of Americans oppose, as does Bush and most lawmakers, an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The AP-Ipsos poll found 57 percent of those surveyed said the U.S. military should stay until Iraq is stabilized.
Associated Press Special Correspondent David Espo and writers Andrew Bridges and Will Lester contributed to this report.