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Cheney: NSA eavesdropping critical to U.S. security

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a robust defense of the nation's post-9/11 domestic eavesdropping program, Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday said the tool is "critical" for U.S. national security.

In his speech before the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, Cheney said the program is necessary "even though some in Washington are yielding to the temptation to downplay the ongoing threat to our country."

"All of us are grateful that our nation has gone four years and four months without another 9/11," Cheney said. "America has been protected not by luck, but by sensible policy decisions ... by decisive action at home and abroad ... and by round-the-clock efforts on the part of people in law enforcement, intelligence, the military and homeland security."

The administration has been on the defensive since last month when it was first revealed that President Bush authorized the National Security Agency shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to eavesdrop without a court warrant on Americans suspected of communicating with al Qaeda members overseas.

Bush has since acknowledged the program and staunchly defended it.

Program's legality questioned

The revelation that the NSA was eavesdropping on Americans without a court warrant has prompted heated criticism from lawmakers, particularly Democrats, who have questioned whether the program is legal and charged that it is a violation of civil liberties.

Shortly after the secret eavesdropping program was revealed, one of the judges on the federal panel in charge of reviewing government requests to secretly gather intelligence in the United States quit his post. And government officials earlier this week said Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who served from 2003 to 2005, "vigorously opposed" aspects of the eavesdropping program.

In his speech, Cheney said the tool is a "vital step" in defending the homeland from al Qaeda and, if it had been in effect before 9/11, the United States might have been able to pick up on the communications of two of the 19 hijackers who were in touch with al Qaeda suspects overseas.

"There are no communications more important to the safety of the United States than those related to al Qaeda," he says in the excerpts. "The activities conducted under this authorization have helped to detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks against the American people. As such, this program is critical to the national security of the United States."

Cheney, who was White House chief of staff during the Ford administration in the wake of the Watergate scandal, says officials in that administration were "adamant about following the law and protecting the civil liberties of all Americans."

"Three decades later, I work for a president who shares those same values."

'This nation will not let down its guard'

And he blasts those who have raised questions about the NSA program.

"As we get farther away from September 11, 2001, some in Washington are yielding to the temptation to downplay the ongoing threat to our country, and to back away from the business at hand," Cheney said. "This is perhaps a natural impulse, as time passes and the alarms don't sound."

He added, "Either we are serious about fighting this war or we are not. And as long as George W. Bush is president of the United States, we are serious -- and this nation will not let down its guard."

Cheney also lauds the efforts to establish democracy in Iraq, and presses ahead with the administration's push for renewal of the counterterrorism Patriot Act. Congress recently authorized an extension of the Patriot Act from December 31 until February 3.

The extension gives the White House and congressional leaders about five weeks to try to resolve the political impasse over a stalled bill to make 14 of the 16 expiring Patriot Act provisions permanent and extend two others until 2009.

"We look forward to a renewal of the Patriot Act in 2006, because that law has done exactly what it was intended to do -- and this country cannot afford to be without its protections," Cheney said.

The Patriot Act was passed overwhelmingly by Congress as a counterterrorism measure after the 2001 terrorist attacks, broadening law enforcement's authority to use wiretaps and other measures. While most of its provisions were permanent, a small number were designed to expire at the end of 2005. Congress has voted to extend them for at least one month, pending further action.

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