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In the Eye of the Spying Storm

President Bush visits the headquarters of the National Security Agency as he strives to defend his domestic eavesdropping program.

January 26, 2006|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush made a rare visit Wednesday to the National Security Agency, the office at the center of the controversy over warrantless eavesdropping, telling employees there: "When terrorist operatives are here in America communicating with someone overseas, we must understand what's going on."

And he urged Americans to take seriously the words of Osama bin Laden, likely the NSA's No. 1 target, in an audiotape released last week.

"When he says he's going to hurt the American people again, or try to, he means it," Bush said. "I take it seriously, and the people of the NSA take it seriously."

Challenging assertions that his approval of the wiretapping and inspection of e-mail violated the law, Bush said, "The American people expect me to protect their lives and their civil liberties, and that's exactly what we're doing with this program."

Bush's visit to NSA headquarters at Ft. Meade, Md. -- a site once so secret that NSA was said to stand for "No Such Agency" -- was part of a stepped-up campaign in recent days to gain public support for the spying program.

Earlier, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan defended Bush's decision not to ask a special court for warrants to monitor people in the United States.

"This is a time of war. This is about wartime surveillance of the enemy," McClellan said, adding a refinement of his earlier arguments: "We don't ask our commanders to go to the court and ask for approval while they're trying to gain intelligence on the enemy."

The administration contends that Bush's inherent powers as commander in chief and a congressional resolution approved after the Sept. 11 attacks, authorizing him to use all necessary force to fight terrorism, gave him the power to order domestic intelligence-gathering without getting warrants.

With the administration focused on Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the eavesdropping which are to begin Feb. 6, the panel's chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), signaled the approach he would take.

He sent 15 questions to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, one of the witnesses from the executive branch.

Among the questions:

* Why didn't the administration seek the authority to conduct such surveillance when Congress passed the Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 expansion of anti-terrorism law?

* Didn't President Jimmy Carter's signature on the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the statement Carter issued at the time, amount to a renunciation of presidential authority "to conduct warrantless domestic surveillance"?

* When foreign calls are made through U.S. switches, isn't such monitoring against the law or a violation of regulations that restrict the NSA from conducting surveillance inside the United States?

The last question goes to the heart of an argument McClellan has made in recent days that takes issue with calling the program "domestic spying."

The administration has said it allows the surveillance only when at least one end of the phone call or e-mail traffic is outside the United States and one person involved is a suspected terrorist.

"I think it leaves an inaccurate impression with the American people to say that this is domestic spying," McClellan said. "You don't call a flight from New York to somewhere in Afghanistan a domestic flight. It's called an international flight."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), speaking at a meeting of the nation's mayors, joined the criticism of the program, challenging Bush's contention that he has the authority to conduct the monitoring.

"Their argument that it's rooted in the authority to go after Al Qaeda is far-fetched. Their argument that it's rooted in the Constitution inherently is kind of strange," Clinton said, citing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, under which she said it would not be hard to gain permission for the wiretaps.

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