I Am The Law: The administration is putting the president above the law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Friday refused to discuss a report that he secretly authorized a U.S. agency to eavesdrop on people in America but said everything he does to protect the public against terrorism is within the law.

The New York Times said Bush signed a secret presidential order after the September 11, 2001, attacks to allow the National Security Agency to track the international telephone calls and emails of hundreds of people without the court approval normally required for domestic spying.

The report added to critics' concerns that the White House violated civil rights while pursuing the war on terrorism it declared after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Bush and other administration officials declined to comment specifically on the report, but said he stayed within the law while acting to protect people from further attacks.

"We do not discuss ongoing intelligence operations to protect the country, and the reason why is that there's an enemy that lurks, that would like to know exactly what we're trying to do to stop them," Bush said.

"I will make this point. That whatever I do to protect the American people, and I have an obligation to do so, that we will uphold the law, and decisions made are made understanding we have an obligation to protect the civil liberties of the American people," he said.

He was speaking in an interview with PBS's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" to be broadcast later on Friday.

The Times said the 2002 directive to the NSA marked a major shift in U.S. intelligence-gathering and led some officials to question whether the strategy violated constitutional limits on legal searches.

The NSA, based at Fort Meade, Maryland, is authorized to monitor communications on foreign soil.

An NSA spokesperson declined to comment on the report.


Americans have been wary of domestic monitoring by intelligence agencies since it was learnt in the 1970s that the Pentagon spied on civil rights and anti-Vietnam War groups. That led to legislation imposing strict limits on intelligence gathering inside the United States.

The Bush administration has faced criticism over a range of rights issues in its declared war on terrorism, including its treatment of detainees.

On Friday, a group of senators calling for increased protection of civil liberties blocked renewal by Congress of the USA Patriot Act, an anti-terrorism law passed soon after the September 11 attacks. It expanded the federal government's authority to share information, conduct secret searches and obtain private records.

Civil liberties advocates condemned what they viewed as illegal and unconstitutional NSA activities.

"The administration is claiming extraordinary presidential powers at the expense of civil liberties and is putting the president above the law," Caroline Fredrickson, Washington legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

John Negroponte, U.S. director of national intelligence, has said in interviews that the country is safer now partly due to more integration of international and domestic espionage.

A Democratic congressional official involved in intelligence oversight said, "The lesson we learnt from 9/11 -- more than how the intelligence was organized, more than information-sharing -- was that we had been doing an abysmal job of learning what terrorists might be doing inside our own country."

He added, "But as part of the process of overseeing intelligence, I hope whatever we're doing, we're doing in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations."

The New York Times cited some officials as saying questions about the NSA's new powers led the administration to suspend the operation last year and impose more restrictions.

It said the administration informed the leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees about the program. But other lawmakers said on Friday there was a need for greater disclosure to Congress.

"We need to look into that," remarked Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who said he had heard only media reports about the NSA program. "We should be informed as to exactly what's going on, and then find out whether an investigation is called for. All we have is initial reports."

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Doina Chiacu)

Informant: Richard


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Dezember 2005

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