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Bush Defends Government Phone Tapping Program


President Bush goes into 2006 with a controversy brewing over his decision to launch a program that enables the government's National Security Agency to monitor the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States. Mr. Bush says the program is an essential tool in the war on terrorism.

The program applies only to calls or e-mails where someone in the United States is in contact with a person abroad who is believed to have links to al-Qaida. Under presidential order, the requirement for a court warrant in order to conduct a wiretap, in essence, is waived.

The New York Times newspaper broke the story of the secret monitoring operation in mid-December. Since then, the president has gone to great lengths to vigorously defend the program, saying those who revealed its existence have damaged the national security of the United States.

He spoke of it again when he met with reporters New Year's Day after a visit with wounded soldiers in his home state of Texas. "We're at war, and as the commander-in-chief I have to use the resources at my disposal within the law to protect the American people," said President Bush, "and that is what we are doing."

But some critics suggest the administration may have stretched the law. They cite the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and note that even in cases where time is of the essence, a retroactive warrant is an option.

During a brief question and answer session at a military hospital in San Antonio, President Bush was asked about new reports that a senior official at the Justice Department raised serious concerns about the program long before its existence became public. Mr. Bush responded by saying it is an important program that is constantly under review and limited in scope. "The [National Security Agency] program is one that listens to a few numbers called from the outside of the United States in, from known al-Qaida or affiliate people," he said. "In other words, the enemy is calling somebody, and we need to know who they are calling and why."

Hearings are planned in the U.S. Senate. The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Schumer of New York, says he wants top administration officials to testify and hopes the White House will cooperate with the investigation.

"I hope the White House won't hide behind saying, 'oh, executive privilege, we can't discuss this'," said Mr. Schumer speaking on the Fox News Sunday television program. "That is the wrong attitude. A discussion, perhaps a change in the law, those are all legitimate. Unilaterally changing the law because the vice-president or president thinks it is wrong without discussion or change - that is not the American way."

Mr. Schumer noted that the balance between security and liberty is a delicate one, but he added if the president thought there was a problem with existing law governing wiretaps, he should have worked with Congress to come up with a solution.

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