The Bush administration launched a vigorous defense of its controversial electronic eavesdropping program this week. Senior legal and intelligence officials stepped forward to explain the rationale for the program, and President Bush made a rare visit to the super-secret National Security Agency, which is responsible for the electronic surveillance.
The special program, authorized by President Bush after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, allows electronic eavesdropping on communications such as phone calls and e-mails of people inside the United States who are believed to be in touch with the al-Qaida terror network. It is controversial because the program bypasses a legal requirement to get a warrant from a special court to conduct such spying.
President Bush capped a week of defenses of the electronic eavesdropping with a talk to employees of the National Security Agency, which carries out the program. What he said to them is not known since, in keeping with the agency's nature, the talk was secret. But after touring the agency's facility at Fort Meade, Maryland, outside Washington, the president repeated his belief that the eavesdropping was legal and said it would continue.
"I have the authority, both from the Constitution and the Congress, to undertake this vital program," he 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. I'll continue to reauthorize this program for so long as our country faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups."
The country's second-ranking intelligence officer also made detailed legal and operational defenses of the electronic eavesdropping program. Deputy Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden, who headed the NSA when the program was first authorized, reiterated the administration's contention that if the program had been in place at the time, the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington might have been foiled.
"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-Qaida operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such," he said.
Speaking at another forum in Washington, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales also said asking the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA court, for a warrant takes up too much time.
"The optimal way to achieve the necessary speed and agility is to leave the decisions about particular intercepts to the judgment of professional intelligence officers, based on the best available intelligence information," he said. "They can make that call quickly. If, however, those same intelligence officers had to navigate through the FISA process for each of these intercepts, that would necessarily introduce a significant factor of delay, and there would be critical holes in our early warning system."
But James Bamford, author of two leading books on the NSA, told VOA the administration cannot ignore the warrant requirement simply because the FISA procedure is "inconvenient." Mr. Bamford, who has now joined a lawsuit challenging the legality of the program, says such surveillance is too important to be left to intelligence bureaucrats.
"They were lowering the standard from what is required by law [for surveillance], which is 'probable cause' that somebody's involved with some terrorist group, to just a 'reasonable belief.' In other words, take it away from a judge who requires that there be probable cause and give it over to a shift supervisor at NSA," he said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings on the program for early next month. Democrats as well as some Republicans in Congress are clamoring for additional hearings. But most Republicans have shot back that the Democrats are trying to exploit the issue for partisan political advantage.