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Cheney: Bush has right to authorize secret surveillance



National Security Agency (NSA)
George W. Bush
Civil Rights
Military Intelligence

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday that President Bush has the authority to order international eavesdropping on suspected terrorists in the United States without informing a court.

"If we had been able to do that before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two of the hijackers who were in San Diego in touch overseas with al Qaeda," Cheney said during a tour of earthquake damage in Pakistan.

"It's good, solid, sound policy," the vice president added. "It's the right thing to do." (Watch Bush defend use of wiretaps -- 2:23)

Cheney's comments follow Bush's defense of the practice Monday during a year-end news conference at the White House. Bush said he "absolutely" has the legal authority to order the wiretaps, which are necessary to be "quick to detect and prevent" possible near-term terrorist attacks. (Transcript)

Bush said authorization is derived from the Constitution, and Congress following the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Cheney said such measures were necessary because the United States needed to "aggressively go after terrorists."

Critics say Bush had no legal standing to authorize such wiretaps without obtaining a warrant from a court in accordance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Cheney said the program had "saved thousands of lives."

"It is, I'm convinced, one of the reasons we haven't been attacked in the past four years," Cheney said.

The New York Times first reported last week that Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others in the United States while they communicate with people outside the country.

Although the NSA is usually barred from domestic spying, it can get warrants issued with the permission of a judicial body called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court. Bush's action eliminated the need to get a warrant from the court.

Bush said that the program had been discussed at least 12 times with Congress since 2001 and that it was constantly being reviewed to make sure it was being run correctly. The program is reauthorized every 45 days, meaning he has given his approval more than 30 times since its inception, Bush said.

Calls for investigation

Both Democrats and Republicans have questioned the legality of the program, and some lawmakers have called for an independent investigation or congressional hearings. (Full story)

Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said technological advances used by terrorists made it necessary to conduct the surveillance without a court order.

"We know that a two-minute phone conversation between somebody linked to al Qaeda here and an operative overseas could lead directly to the loss of thousands of lives," Bush said. "To save American lives, we must be able to act fast and to detect these conversations so we can prevent new attacks."

"It has been effective in disrupting the enemy while safeguarding our civil liberties," the president added.

But lawmakers, several of whom said Congress hadn't been informed about the wiretap program, also are concerned about the legality of the president's authorization.

Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin told CNN on Sunday that he believes Bush's action violated the law.

"FISA says it's the exclusive law to authorize wiretaps," he said. "This administration is playing fast and loose with the law in national security. The issue here is whether the president of the United States is putting himself above the law, and I believe he has done so."

'I'm just stunned'

Sen. Jack Reed said the president could have gone back to a FISA court after the wiretaps if he was concerned about speed.

"I'm just stunned by the president's rationales with respect to the illegal wiretapping," the Rhode Island Democrat said. "There are two points that have to be emphasized with respect to the FISA procedure: They're secret and they're retroactive.

"There is no situation where time is of such an essence they can't use the FISA proceedings. And so the president's justification, I think, is without merit."

Gonzales said Monday that a congressional act passed after September 11 not only authorized President Bush to use force in the war on terror, it gave the president the power to allow such wiretaps.

"There were many people, many lawyers within the administration who advised the president that he had an inherent authority as commander in chief under the Constitution to engage in these kind of signal intelligence of our enemy," he said. (CNN Access)

"We also believe that the authorization to use force, which was passed by the Congress in the days following the attacks of September 11, constituted additional authorization for the president to engage in this kind of signal intelligence." (Watch Gonzales' explanation of the administration's position -- 5:36)

Signal intelligence refers to intercepted electronic communications, such as phone calls.

The measure meant the president doesn't need to get a court order to request such wiretaps, as called for in FISA, Gonzales said.

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