President Bush says he has authorized the secret surveillance of people within the United States without court-approved warrants. Mr. Bush says the eavesdropping has helped save American lives and will continue.
After a day of refusing to comment on allegations which first appeared in Friday's New York Times, President Bush Saturday acknowledged that he authorized the surveillance following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
He said that authorization was consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution and focused only on those with known links to al-Qaida and related terrorist organizations. "Before we intercept these communications, the government must have information that establishes a clear link to these terrorist networks," he said. "This is a highly-classified program that is crucial to our national security. Its purpose is to detect and prevent terrorist attacks against the United States and our friends and allies."
In a stern radio address delivered live from the White House Roosevelt Room, President Bush said media reports of the existence of the secret program have given America's enemies information they should not have.
"The unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk," said the president. "Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies, and endangers our country."
With Republicans and Democrats in Congress calling for investigations into whether the secret surveillance violated laws protecting American civil liberties, a defiant President Bush said it is his duty to make sure the eavesdropping continues.
"This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives," said President Bush. "The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties, and that is exactly what I will continue to do so long as I am the President of the United States."
President Bush said he has re-authorized the surveillance more than 30 times since the September 11 attacks. Each review, which happens about every 45 days, includes the Attorney General and White House Counsel as well as the General Counsel and Inspector General of the National Security Agency.
Mr. Bush said Congressional leaders have been briefed more than a dozen times about the NSA eavesdropping, and intelligence officials involved receive what he calls extensive training to ensure they follow both the letter and intent of his authorization.
The NSA is America's premier electronic and satellite spy agency with a budget larger than the better-known Central Intelligence Agency.
The revelation of the secret program came on the day that Republican leaders in the Senate were trying to pass the re-authorization of broad anti-terrorism laws known as the Patriot Act. That effort failed because Democrats, and some Republicans, argued that the legislation does not do enough to protect civil liberties.
President Bush said blocking the Patriot Act is pure politics. "That decision is irresponsible and it endangers the lives of our citizens," he said. "The Senators who are filibustering must stop their delaying tactics, and the Senate must vote to re-authorize the Patriot Act. In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment."
Opponents of the Patriot Act say it gives the government too much power to conduct secret searches and obtain library and medical records. Sixteen of the act's major provisions are set to expire at the end of the year. President Bush says those powers must be extended because the terrorist threat to America will not expire in two weeks.