Bush Defends U.S. Wiretaps, Urges Patriot Act Renewal
December 17, 2005 (Bloomberg, Update 2) — U.S. President George W. Bush defended his authorization of spying on American citizens and foreign nationals after the Sept. 11 attacks and urged Congress to renew the anti-terrorism USA Patriot Act.
“The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them,” Bush said today in his weekly radio address. “That is exactly what I will continue to do.”
Bush said he authorized the National Security Agency soon after Sept. 11 to eavesdrop without court-approved warrants when the government had evidence of links to terrorist organizations. Thousands of people may have had their international phone calls and e-mails monitored, the New York Times reported yesterday.
Bush said U.S. authorities need a variety of ways to keep terrorists from attacking Americans and called the wiretaps a “vital tool.” He said he has reauthorized the program, which requires a review every 45 days, more than 30 times.
Democrats railed against the secret wiretaps, calling them unlawful. In a response to Bush’s radio address, Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold said the president is trying to circumvent protections for innocent Americans.
`Not a King’
“We have a president, not a king, and that’s the way he’s talking,” Feingold said in an interview with CNN. “What he’s doing, I believe, is illegal. And it’s really quite a shocking moment in the history of our country.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter yesterday said he planned to investigate use of the wiretaps after the New York Times reported on them. Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said such a practice would be “clearly and categorically wrong.”
Bush said the spying program has been reviewed by the Justice Department and top leaders in Congress have been briefed about it repeatedly. He said he had the authority to clear the program, and its existence was improperly revealed to the media.
“Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies and endangers our country,” Bush said. “The activities conducted under this authorization have helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, declined to comment on the wiretaps specifically. “I have been kept abreast of programs that it is appropriate for the majority leader to be briefed on,” he said.
The president also took Congress to task for allowing parts of the Patriot Act to come close to expiring. The Senate yesterday failed to clear the way for renewal of the Patriot Act, falling seven votes short of a total needed to cut off debate.
The law, enacted soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, expands the powers of investigative agencies trying to root out terrorists. Parts of it will expire in two weeks.
“The terrorist threat to our country will not expire in two weeks,” Bush said. The Senate’s failure to vote on the legislation is “irresponsible and it endangers the lives of our citizens,” he said. “In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment.”
Feingold and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said the president isn’t willing to compromise on the legislation. Leahy, one of the original sponsors of the Patriot Act, favors a short extension for the program while negotiations continue.
Critics of the Patriot Act say it infringes on Americans’ civil rights too drastically by giving U.S. authorities wide latitude to collect information and investigation. Leahy and other Democrats say they want to add protections for Americans to the legislation.
`Above the Law’
“Our government must follow the laws and respect the Constitution while it protects Americans’ security and liberty,” Leahy said in a statement. “The Bush administration seems to believe it is above the law. It is not.”
Bush gave today’s radio address live from the Roosevelt Room at the White House. He also plans to give a nationally televised address Dec. 18 at 9 p.m. Washington time from the Oval Office to discuss the just-completed elections in Iraq, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday. The last time Bush made an Oval Office speech was when military action in Iraq began in March 2003.
“He wants to give the American people the sense of the way forward in 2006, talk about the importance of the mission,” McClellan said today.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kristin Jensen in Washington kjensen@Bloomberg.net