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Bush defends NSA spying program

Senators back hearings as president explains campaign remarks

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Sunday defended his administration's use of wiretaps on U.S. citizens without a court order, saying comments he made in 2004 that "nothing has changed" in the use of wiretaps were not misleading.

He also said that the recent exposure of the clandestine wiretapping program -- which set off a storm of criticism and controversy -- harms the country.

Democratic and Republican senators on Sunday expressed support for congressional hearings to review the program, which President Bush secretly authorized shortly after the September 11 attacks.

It allows the National Security Agency to intercept domestic communications without a warrant, as long as one party is outside the United States.

The president has come under heated criticism from many lawmakers, particularly Democrats, who have questioned the legality of the program.

Critics say that judicial checks and balances are a critical part of government and that the courts have a record of supporting presidential requests for wiretaps important for U.S. security.

Bush on Sunday described his program as "necessary to win this war and to protect the American people," and added that the program has been reviewed "constantly" by Justice Department officials.

He said Congress has been briefed about it, although some lawmakers have denied being informed of the program.

The chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, has said he intends to hold hearings into whether the program is legal.

Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday that "this is an appropriate time" for congressional hearings.

"Congress quite rightly is trying to take a look at, now that we're past 9/11, we're going to have to live with the war on terror for a long, long while," he told CNN's "Late Edition."

He added, "We want to see what in the course of time really works best."

The administration has cited as legal justification for the program Article II of the Constitution and a post-9/11 law that authorized the president to use force against al Qaeda.

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

"The FISA act has worked pretty well from the time of President Carter's day to the current time," Lugar said.

Bush: Program 'limited'

Visiting Brooke Army Medical Center Sunday in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Bush bemoaned that the program had been made public.

The Justice Department has opened an investigation into leaks to the media about the NSA program. (Full story)

"The fact that somebody leaked this program causes great harm to the United States," Bush said. "There is an enemy out there. They read newspapers."

"They attacked us before; they will attack us again if they can, and we're going to do everything we can to stop them."

Asked what he would tell Americans worried that the practice violates their privacy rights, Bush said, "If somebody from al Qaeda is calling you, we'd like to know why.

"In the meantime, this program is conscious of people's civil liberties, as am I. This is a limited program designed to prevent attacks on the United States of America -- and I repeat: limited."

Bush said the calls monitored are limited to those between known al Qaeda members or their affiliates outside the United States and people inside the United States.

Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, welcomed the prospect of hearings.

"This year, 2006, we are going to be focusing on the power of the president in time of war," he told CNN. "The White House wants to expand that power in so many areas. Clearly, Congress is holding back."

Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, told "Fox News Sunday" that Bush should have gone to Congress if he needed to change the law governing domestic surveillance.

"Unilaterally changing the law because the vice president or president thinks it's wrong, without discussion or change -- that's not the American way," he said.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell told Fox "there's nothing wrong with congressional oversight" but suggested hearings should be conducted in secret by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"We're already talking about this entirely too much out in public as a result of these leaks," said McConnell, the second ranking Republican and majority whip.

Bush explains remarks

During his re-election race in April 2004 in Buffalo, New York, Bush spoke to reporters about the USA Patriot Act and attempted to assure them the measure did not encroach on Americans' civil liberties.

"There are such things as roving wiretaps. Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order.

"Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so.

"It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution."

He explained at the time that a "roving wiretap" allowed the Drug Enforcement Agency to chase down "drug lords" who regularly switched cell phones. But roving wiretaps had not been available "for chasing down terrorists," he said.

"If we couldn't use a tool that we're using against mobsters on terrorists, something needed to happen. The Patriot Act changed that," he said.

On Sunday, Bush said the remark that nothing had changed referred to the roving wiretaps and not to the kind of eavesdropping that came to light after a New York Times report last month.

He rejected a suggestion from a reporter that his April 2004 comments might be considered misleading, given Bush's recent acknowledgment of the NSA program.

"I was talking about roving wiretaps, I believe, involving the Patriot Act," he said. "This is different from the NSA program."

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