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Bush won't confirm report NSA spied on Americans

From Kelli Arena
CNN Washington Bureau

Sources confirm that President Bush signed an order permitting NSA eavesdropping in 2002.


National Security Agency (NSA)
Military Intelligence
Civil Rights
Espionage and Intelligence

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Without confirming a report that he OK'd eavesdropping on U.S. citizens in 2002, President Bush defended his actions since September 11, 2001, saying he has done everything "within the law" to protect the American people.

A story in The New York Times on Friday said that Bush secretly signed an order authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans who were communicating with individuals overseas to determine if they had terrorist ties.

"After 9/11, I told the American people I would do everything in my power to protect the country, within the law, and that's exactly how I conduct my presidency," Bush said in an interview with PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

Sources with knowledge of the program have since told CNN that Bush did sign the secret order in 2002. The sources refused to be identified because the program is classified.

Pressed on the topic in the PBS interview, Bush said he understood people want him to confirm or deny the report, but he couldn't discuss specifics because "it would compromise our ability to protect the people," according to a transcript of the program.

The NSA eavesdrops on billions of communications worldwide. While the NSA is barred from domestic spying, it can get warrants issued with the permission of a special court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court.

The court is set up specifically to issue warrants allowing wiretapping on domestic soil.

The New York Times reported that the NSA has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants during the past three years as part of its war on terror.

Bill Keller, the Times' executive editor, said in a statement that the newspaper postponed publication of the article for a year at the White House's request, while editors pondered the national security issues surrounding the release of the information.

But after considering the legal and civil liberties aspects, and determining that the story could be written without jeopardizing intelligence operations, the paper ran the story, Keller said, emphasizing that information about many NSA eavesdropping operations is public record.

"What is new is that the NSA has for the past three years had the authority to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States without a warrant," Keller said. "It is that expansion of authority -- not the need for a robust anti-terror intelligence operation -- that prompted debate within the government, and that is the subject of the article."

CNN has not confirmed the exact wording of the president's order.

"I think the point that Americans really want to know is twofold. One, are we doing everything we can to protect the people? And two, are we protecting the civil liberties as we do so?" Bush said during the PBS interview. "And my answer to both is yes, we are."

Effect on Patriot Act vote

However, senators contemplating a vote Friday on whether to renew some controversial portions of the Patriot Act used The New York Times' report as evidence that the government could not be trusted with the broad powers laid out in the act. (Read about the Patriot Act vote)

In particular, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said he had been unsure the night before how he would vote.

"Today's revelation that the government listened in on thousands of phone conversations without getting a warrant is shocking and has greatly influenced my vote," he said. "Today's revelation makes it very clear that we have to be very careful -- very careful."

One of Schumer's GOP colleagues, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, seemed troubled by Friday's news and said that the revelation, if true, was "very problemsome, if not devastating" to getting the Patriot Act renewed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman added that his committee would immediately begin investigating the matter and that such behavior "can't be condoned."

Stansfield Turner, a retired Navy admiral who headed the Central Intelligence Agency from 1977 to 1981 under President Jimmy Carter, concurred with Schumer, saying, "Presidents have to conform to the law. All of the agencies of the government have to conform to the law."

Turner said he took the CIA helm after several investigations into intelligence abuses, so there was more emphasis on protecting civil liberties than there is today.

"Today, the emphasis is on protecting us from another 9/11, and so this administration is leaning pretty heavily on the side of getting all the information we can at any price," he said.

Turner conceded that gathering intelligence on the Soviet military -- the threat of his day -- was easier than gathering intelligence on "these amorphous terrorist groups," but, he said, breaking the rules should only be an option in extreme situations.

"I think they have transgressed the law here. I think they've gone too far in intruding into our civil liberties," Turner said.

Need to fight terror cited

Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez would not discuss the NSA program. But Gonzalez did defend the need to collect information.

"Well, let me just say winning the war on terror requires winning the war of information. We are dealing with a very dangerous, very patient, very diabolical enemy who wants to harm America, and in order to be effective in dealing with this enemy, we need to have information," Gonzalez said.

"That is very, very important. And so we will be aggressive in obtaining that information, but we will always do so in a manner that is consistent with our legal obligations."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan also did not confirm or deny the program's existence, but he defended the president's right to order surveillance.

"The president is firmly committed to upholding our Constitution and upholding people's civil liberties. That is something he has always kept in mind as we have moved forward from the attacks of September 11, to do everything within our power to prevent attacks from happening," McClellan said.

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