President Bush has defended his decision to authorize a secret program to eavesdrop on the telephone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and suspected terrorists abroad. The topic dominated what is expected to be the president's final news conference of the year.
The revelation of a secret surveillance program put the president on the defensive, but he made no apologies as he responded to questions about whether the operation contradicted one of America's basic freedoms - the constitutional protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The president says it is necessary to act quickly in suspected terrorism cases to defend the American people. He says he has reauthorized the program on a regular basis and will continue to do so. "We know that a two-minute phone conversation between somebody linked to al-Qaida here and an operative overseas could lead directly to the loss of thousands of lives. To save American lives, we must be able to act fast and to detect these conversations so we can prevent new attacks," he said.
A court warrant is almost always required to monitor communications. But under the secret surveillance program authorized by the President, the National Security Agency bypassed the courts to tap telephone calls and intercept e-mails to and from the United States involving people with suspected al-Qaida links.
Mr. Bush answered reporters' questions in the White House East Room for nearly an hour, and said the disclosure of the secret program helps the enemy. He said he presumes the Justice Department will investigate the source of the leak, and left no doubt what he thinks about those who passed along information about the surveillance operation. "It is a shameful act by somebody who has got secrets of the United States government and feels like they need to disclose them publicly," he said.
The president said the program includes safeguards, and he bristled at the notion he might be seeking unchecked powers in the name of the war on terror. He said after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks Congress authorized steps to protect the American people and said he is doing so without wanton disregard for civil liberties. "I understand people's concerns. But I also want to assure the American people that I am doing what you expect me to do, which is to safeguard civil liberties and at the same time protect the United States of America," he said.
In that vein, the president went on to encourage Congress to re-authorize the Patriot Act, which expands the government's ability to investigate suspected terrorists in the United States. He called efforts to delay action in the Senate "inexcusable."
During his news conference, Mr. Bush also renewed his call for patience on the part of Americans as Iraqi leaders go about the process of forming a new government.
He was also asked if the faulty intelligence used to justify the Iraq war is making it harder to convince other countries of the threat posed by Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear program. "People know that an Iran with the capability to manufacture a nuclear weapon is not in the world's interest. That is universally accepted, particularly after what the president (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) recently said about the desire to annihilate, for example, an ally of the United States (Israel)," he said.
Mr. Bush said he continues to believe diplomacy is the best way to handle the problem. He indicated if negotiations between Iran and representatives of three European countries fail, the next step would be to take the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions to the United Nations Security Council.