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Bush Defends Wiretapping Program

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush returned to Washington on New Year's Day, making a symbolic early start to his sixth year in office. And the president got busy defending his secret domestic surveillance program of American citizens as a vital and necessary tool to fight terrorism. But also yesterday on CNN, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois echoed many in Congress when he praised hearings looking into the administration's controversial policy.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): The law is clear. If you're going to spy on an American, there's a process you have to follow. I'm glad Senator Specter, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is going to have a hearing on this.

MONTAGNE: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin.

NPR's Libby Lewis has more on the latest developments in the debate over the National Security Agency spying.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

The president spent part of New Year's Day visiting wounded troops recovering at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Afterwards, he took questions from reporters. The first question centered on a story in Sunday's New York Times. The Times said a top Justice Department official, James B. Comey, refused to sign off on continuing the secret program in 2004 while he was standing in for Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft was in the hospital at the time. A reporter asked, `Was Mr. Bush aware of any resistance to the program by any top administration officials?' Mr. Bush did not answer that question. Instead, he defended the surveillance program. It allows the national security agency to monitor communications of Americans and others believed to have ties to terrorists. The program does not require the government to get a warrant to spy on a particular American. Some lawmakers and civil liberties experts say the lack of court review makes the program illegal. Mr. Bush characterized the surveillance program as legal and limited.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The ISA program is one that listens to a few numbers called from the outside of the United States in of known al-Qaeda or affiliate people. I mean, in other words, the enemy's calling somebody and we want to know who they're calling and why.

LEWIS: Later, the White House clarified the president's remark and said Mr. Bush meant to say calls going to and originating from the US are being monitored. He did not address why he felt it necessary to bypass the foreign intelligence surveillance court. Congress created the court to prevent abuses by the executive branch, but he said his administration was protecting Americans' privacy.

Pres. BUSH: This program is conscious of people's civil liberties, as am I.

LEWIS: Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Congress should hold hearings on the surveillance program. Republican Senator Richard Lugar told CNN the further away in time the nation gets from September 11th, the more care should be given to considering the nation's methods for fighting terrorism.

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): Well, I can understand in the context of 9/11 that there may have been in a common sense way a reason why calls coming from the Middle East or Afghanistan to America might be intercepted. But I think the Congress quite rightly is trying to take a look at now, the fact we're past 9/11, we're going to have to live with the war on terror for a long while, and whether it's the treatment of prisoners that we've been discussing, for example, or elements of the Patriot Act, likewise intercepts are going to have to be given, I think, a pretty good hearing.

LEWIS: Mr. Bush said he believes that whomever leaked news of the program had caused great harm to the country. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell echoed the president's sentiment. He told FOX News the focus should be on finding the leaker.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Now what really ought to be happening here is the Justice Department investigation, going after those who breached our national security and endangered Americans in the war on terror.

LEWIS: McConnell said he wouldn't contest congressional hearings, but he said he thinks they should be held by the intelligence committees in secret.

Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Libby Lewis
Libby Lewis is an award-winning reporter on the National Desk whose pieces on issues of law, society, criminal justice, the military and social policy can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Saturday, and other NPR shows.