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Bush Defends Domestic Spying Program

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

President Bush admitted today he had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans in the hunt for terrorists. A New York Times report yesterday revealing the wiretaps gave fuel to those on Capitol Hill who say civil liberties are in danger, and the Senate went on to block the president's request to renew the USA Patriot Act. Today, President Bush responded in his Saturday radio address, which, unlike most Saturdays, was broadcast live. We begin our coverage with NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

Welcome, Don.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Hi. Glad to be here.

ELLIOTT: In an interview yesterday on PBS the president refused to comment on the wiretap program reported in The New York Times. He said, quote, "We do not discuss ongoing intelligence operations." But today he was more open.

(Soundbite of presidential address)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on our nation I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with US law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known leaks--links to al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations.

ELLIOTT: Don, what changed overnight?

GONYEA: Well, it's clear the White House was assessing how best to respond all day yesterday. The story broke Friday morning in The Times. Press secretary Scott McClellan seemed to confirm it yesterday morning without confirming it at his morning briefing. By that I mean he had many opportunities to dispute the story and he simply didn't. Then we heard much the same from the president last night. He did the interview on the "NewsHour." But, really, the revelations prompted tremendous criticism up on Capitol Hill from Republicans and from Democrats. Republican Senate Arlen Specter said he would call hearings to investigate. And certainly, it affected the vote on the Patriot Act. Really, it just threatened to become one of those all-consuming stories that would distract from everything and prevent the White House from trying to get its message out on other things. So we get this statement today.

ELLIOTT: Now the president gave no hint of actually stopping the eavesdropping. Let's listen to his justification for it.

(Soundbite of presidential address)

Pres. BUSH: The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time, and the activities conducted under this authorization have helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad.

GONYEA: And the president's tone today was almost defiant, so no hint at all of abandoning it. In fact, it comes up for renewal every 45 days, and the president today said that he has renewed it 30 times and will continue to do so. Also today, though, I want to say, he went after the media. He didn't mention The New York Times by name, but he said the stories should not have been published. He said it damaged our national security and that it taught terrorists things they should not have known.

ELLIOTT: Now the president is planning to go on television tomorrow with a national address. What should we expect?

GONYEA: Look for it to be what the White House tells us a look ahead at Iraq for 2006 now that elections have taken place. Will he hint of troop reductions down the road? Perhaps, but don't look for him to waver from that standard line, that victory is the only acceptable outcome. The speech will be in the Oval Office. It will be more formal. He's on the offensive. He's trying to get Americans to come back with him and to hang in there.

ELLIOTT: NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea. Thank you.

GONYEA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.