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Bush Eavesdropping Program Stirs US Debate

19 December 2005

President Bush is aggressively defending his decision to use a secretive intelligence agency to monitor phone calls and e-mails of some U.S. citizens and others inside the United States without a court order as part of the war on terrorism. But critics are not backing down from their demand for congressional investigation.

Questions about domestic spying by the National Security Agency dominated the president's news conference.

But Mr. Bush adopted a defiant stance in defense of his decision to authorize the monitoring of some phone calls and e-mails from people suspected of terrorist ties within the United States without first obtaining a court order.

"I just want to assure the American people that one, I have got the authority to do this. Two, it is a necessary part of my job to protect you. Three, we are guarding your civil liberties," said Mr. Bush.

The New York Times newspaper first reported the intelligence monitoring program last week and ever since, several opposition Democrats and even a few Republicans have expressed concern about whether it is legal and proper.

Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, says he is outraged by the president's decision to circumvent a law that requires the government to secure court ordered warrants before eavesdropping on U.S. citizens inside the United States.

"He is the president, not a king, and that is the way we make laws in this country," said Mr. Feingold. "If the president is asserting a doctrine that he can do anything to protect the American people without the basis of law, we need to know what those things are and we need to talk about it."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales contends the president has the authority to order the monitoring because of sweeping anti-terror legislation passed by Congress in the days following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Gonzales told NBC's Today program that the traditional procedure of seeking a court order before imposing a wiretap would put the United States at a disadvantage in the war against al-Qaida.

"The changes in technology have been dramatic and we need to be able to use other tools, which allow us to act more quickly and make us more agile in responding to the threat by al-Qaida," said Mr. Gonzales.

The National Security Agency was set up to monitor communications abroad and a 1978 law requires the government to obtain a warrant from a special intelligence court before it can keep tabs on phone calls and e-mail traffic from American citizens or others living inside the United States.

Disclosure of the intelligence effort has prompted calls for congressional hearings from prominent lawmakers from both parties.

"There should be investigations and hearings related to this by the committees of competent jurisdiction," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid on Fox News Sunday.

Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, told ABC's This Week program that he believes the president has the authority to use the wiretaps to protect the country from terrorist attacks.

"I do not see anything wrong with congressional hearings," said Mr. McCain. "But what kind of information are you going to put into the public arena that might help the al-Qaida people in going undetected?"

The 1978 law requiring special court approval to eavesdrop on phone conversations of people inside the country was enacted after various domestic intelligence abuses came to light in the late 1960's and 1970's.

David Cole is an expert on national security and civil liberties and a professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

"There is no question that the president is on very, very weak ground here in authorizing American's phones to be wiretapped without any court order," said Mr. Cole. "President Nixon sought to do so back in the 1970's and the Supreme Court squarely held that was not permissible. You have to go to a court and show probable cause before you can tap somebody's phone."

But security analyst Roy Godson, who also teaches at Georgetown University, says Americans expect the president to do all he can to protect the country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

"It is going to take us a little while to, as we are on this issue and as on other issues, say, pertaining to the treatment of detainees that are picked up either outside or inside the United States, it takes a while for a democracy to get this in balance, but I think this is a useful step in the process," said Mr. Godson.

President Bush says that only international calls are monitored in the program, either calls placed from within the United States that are directed overseas or those from other countries into the United States by those suspected of having links to terrorists.

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