Bush: Spy program legal, necessary

By wire services
Published January 27, 2006

WASHINGTON - President Bush suggested Thursday he might resist any congressional move to change his controversial program of warrantless surveillance for terrorist threats and said: "There's no doubt in my mind it is legal."

Speaking at a White House news conference, Bush said the domestic spying program "is designed to protect civil liberties" and declared that "it's necessary."

Democrats have accused the president of breaking the law in allowing eavesdropping on overseas communications to and from U.S. residents. Some Republicans have also questioned the practice.

It was the president's first full-scale news conference of the new year, and the 10th since he was re-elected in 2004. He previewed his upcoming State of the Union address and fielded questions on former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the victory of the radical group Hamas in Palestinian elections and the administration's cooperation with Congress on its investigation of Hurricane Katrina.

Asked if he would support efforts in Congress to spell out his authority to continue the spying program, Bush cited the delicacy of the operation.

"It's important for people to understand that this program is so sensitive and so important that if information gets out to how we run it or how we operate it, it'll help the enemy," he said. "Why tell the enemy what we're doing?"

"We'll listen to ideas. But I want to make sure that people understand that if the attempt to write law makes this program - is likely to expose the nature of the program, I'll resist it," he said.

He said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks he asked people like Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then the director of the National Security Agency, to come up with plans to protect against terrorist attacks.

"And so he came forward with this program," Bush said. "In other words, it wasn't designed in the White House, it was designed where you expect it to be designed, in the NSA."

During the wide-ranging news conference, the president was also asked about disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Bush said he would cooperate with federal prosecutors investigating Abramoff and his alleged influence peddling activities, if necessary. Otherwise, the president said he saw no reason to release pictures taken of him and Abramoff.

"There is a serious investigation going on by federal prosecutors - that's their job," Bush said. "If they believe something was done inappropriately in the White House, they'll come and look and they're welcome to do so."

Otherwise, Bush said, "I've had my picture taken with a lot of people. Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean that I'm a friend with him or know him very well. "

"I've had my picture taken with you," Bush said to the reporter who asked the question.

The president also defended his administration's level of cooperation with congressional investigations into the government's slow response to the Hurricane Katrina devastation, citing the thousands of documents the White House has provided.

Democrats seek outside counsel in Abramoff case

WASHINGTON - Two Senate Democrats called Thursday for the appointment of a special counsel to take over investigation of the corruption scandal spawned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The switch "would ensure that the investigation and prosecution will proceed without fear or favor and provide the public with full confidence that no one in this country is above the law," Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Ken Salazar of Colorado wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said, "There is no legal or ethical reason why the attorney general would need to recuse himself from this investigation."

Abramoff pleaded guilty earlier this year to several felony charges, some of them involving his dealings with members of Congress and their aides.

Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.


Some topics addressed by President Bush at Thursday's news conference:

THE ABRAMOFF CASE: Bush distanced himself from Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion charges in an influence-peddling scandal. Bush said although he has had his picture taken with Abramoff, he has never had a discussion with him. "Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean that I'm a friend with him or know him very well. I have also had pictures with thousands and thousands of people," Bush said. "I've had my picture taken with you," Bush said to the reporter who asked the question.

DOMESTIC SPYING: The president expressed reluctance to change law governing his authority to eavesdrop on conversations between people in America and people overseas with suspected terrorist ties. "My concern has always been that, in an attempt to try to pass a law on something that's already legal, we'll show the enemy what we're doing," Bush said.

HURRICANE RESPONSE: Bush said he does not want his aides to testify before Congress about the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, including former FEMA director Michael Brown. "If people give me advice and they're forced to disclose that advice, it means the next time an issue comes up, I might not be able to get unvarnished advice from my advisers," the president said.

TORTURE: The president said any allegation that the United States tortures people is wrong. "No American will be allowed to torture another human being anywhere in the world," he said.

UPCOMING ELECTIONS: The president said he believes Democrats and Republicans can accomplish something together even though this is a congressional election year. Responding to a question later, he said he was eager to get out and help Republicans win in November. "I've got one more off-year campaign in me as a sitting president, and I'm looking forward to it," he said.