Bush Administration: Defending Domestic Surveillance Program - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

1/23/06-Washington, D.C.

Bush Administration: Defending Domestic Surveillance Program

The Bush administration on Monday intensified its defense of a domestic surveillance program that supporters say protects against terrorism and critics say threatens civil liberties.

During a Washington address, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who headed the National Security Agency when President Bush first authorized the surveillance program after September 11, 2001, staunchly defended it.

"Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States and we would have identified them as such," said Hayden, who now serves as principal deputy director of national intelligence.

Addressing privacy concerns prompted by the program, Hayden said, "We know we can only do our job if we have the trust of the American people."

Bush authorized the NSA to intercept communications between people inside the United States, including U.S. citizens, and known terrorist suspects overseas, without obtaining a court warrant.

Some critics call the program illegal, and others contend it threatens civil liberties and privacy rights.

Bush and other administration officials contend his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief, as well as a congressional resolution passed in the wake of 9/11, provide the legal authority for the warrantless surveillance.

Hayden said he called a meeting in October 2001 shortly after the program was authorized and told key NSA workforce members "what we're going to do and why. I also told them that we're going to carry out this program and not go one step further."

The general said three NSA lawyers provided independent opinions that the program was legal and that NSA, culturally, is committed to protecting privacy. "The agency does everything with a lawyer looking over their shoulders," Hayden said.

He said the program is not a "drift net" but targets intercepted communication that is initiated or terminated in a foreign country. Judgments of what communication is deemed to be directly tied to al Qaeda is made by NSA professionals.

The general is one in a string of high-level administration officials set to make public appearances about the secret program this week, culminating Wednesday with President Bush's visit to National Security Agency headquarters outside Washington.

'Preventing attacks'

The White House's intensified defense of the program launched Monday morning as spokesman Dan Bartlett appeared on CNN saying it has "directly played a role in preventing attacks on our homeland" and protections are in place to prevent its abuse.

"There are multiple checks and balances to make sure what we're doing is targeting ... international phone calls of terrorists, not the conversations between two families coordinating a family vacation," Bartlett said. "We have very strict laws, very strict oversight. This is a targeted program, and I think most of the American people would be very angry if they thought we weren't doing just this."

On Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is to speak publicly on the surveillance program.

Critics of the program have questioned that legal rationale, pointing to a law passed by Congress in the 1970s requiring executive branch agencies to get approval for domestic surveillance requests from a special court set up for that purpose, whose proceedings are secret to protect national security.

They point out the administration could accomplish the same goals legally by taking requests for warrants before the court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) -- and doing so as long as 72 hours after the wiretaps were begun in cases where time is of the essence.

"I don't think that anyone can make the claim that the FISA statute is optimized to deal with or prevent a 9/11, or to deal with a lethal enemy who likely already had combatants inside the United States," Hayden said.

The president's visit to the NSA will come ahead of a February 6 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing looking into the program's legality.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed lawsuits last week against the government to stop the program.

"President Bush may believe he can authorize spying on Americans without judicial or congressional approval, but this program is illegal, and we intend to put a stop to it," ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said.

Last week, Al Gore, who served as vice president during the Clinton administration and who lost to Bush in the 2000 presidential election, called the program a "gross and excessive power grab" and charged that Bush "has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently."

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