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Bush: Secret wiretaps have disrupted potential attacks

President says speed of eavesdropping essential

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(CNN) -- President Bush defended Monday a secretive program that eavesdrops on some international phone calls involving U.S. citizens, saying the United States must be "quick to detect and prevent" possible near-term terrorist attacks.

At an end-of-the-year news conference, Bush spent much of his time answering questions about the program, which bypasses the normal procedure of attaining a court warrant and is designed to intercept communications between suspected terrorists in the United States and other countries.

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

Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who appeared on several network morning shows, 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." (Watch Bush defend use of wiretaps -- 2:23)

"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.

"[The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] 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."

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.

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.

Feingold, appearing Monday on NBC's "Today Show," called Bush's actions a power grab.

"Nobody, nobody, thought when we passed a resolution to invade Afghanistan and to fight the war on terror, including myself who voted for it, thought that this was an authorization to allow a wiretapping against the law of the United States," he said.

Gen. Michael Hayden, the head of NSA when the program began and now deputy director of national intelligence, told reporters Monday, "I can say unequivocally we have got information through this program that would not otherwise have been available."

Bush seemed angered that the program was revealed in an article in Friday's editions of The New York Times.

"My personal opinion is it was a shameful act, for someone to disclose this very important program in time of war," Bush said. "The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy."

Bush also 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.

He also said that the electronic monitoring was limited to people with "known al Qaeda ties and/or affiliates." Any domestic calls, the president said, would go through the secretive FISA court.

The program is re-authorized every 45 days, meaning he has given his approval more than 30 times since its inception, Bush said.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said the White House should have come to Congress and asked for a new or amended law.

"We've always had these safeguards to prevent abuses," he told ABC's "Good Morning, America."

"They're logical. And if the vice president and president thought that they weren't working, they should come to Congress and say, 'Change the law.' "

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