WASHINGTON -- President Bush acknowleged on Saturday that he authorized the National Security Agency "to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations" and said leaks to the media about the program were illegal.
Sources have told CNN that Bush signed a secret order in 2002 allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans and others in the United States who are communicating with people overseas. The story was first reported Friday in The New York Times.
'REVEALING THIS INFORMATION IS ILLEGAL'
President George W. Bush gives a televised address from the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. Bush used the appearance to state that he had authorized the use of highly secret wiretaps by the National Security Agency. (Photo/REUTERS/Chris Kleponis)
During an unusual live, on-camera version of his weekly radio address, Bush said such authorization is "fully consistent" with his "constitutional responsibilities and authorities."
"This is highly classified program crucial to our national security" and "its purpose is to detect and prevent terrorist attacks," Bush said.
"The existence of this secret program was revealed in media reports after being improperly given to news organizations," Bush said. "Unauthorized disclosure damages our national security and puts our nation at risk.
"Revealing this information is illegal."
The NSA eavesdrops on billions of communications worldwide. Although the NSA is barred from domestic spying, it can get warrants issued with the permission of a special court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court.
The court is set up specifically to issue warrants allowing wiretapping on domestic soil.
Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said Saturday: "There's not a single senator or member of Congress who thought we were authorizing wiretaps."
"If he needs a wiretap, the authority is already there -- the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act," Feingold said. "They can ask for a warrant to do that and even if there's an emergency situation they can go for 72 hours as long as they give notice at the end of 72 hours."
Feingold said "it's a sad day" in light of what he heard Bush say.
"He authorized these wiretaps even though there was no specific law allowing it," Feingold said. "He's trying to claim somehow that the authorization for the Afghanistan attack after 9/11 permitted this and that's just absurd."
Bush said two of the September 11 hijackers -- Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi -- who flew the plane into the Pentagon "communicated while they were in the United States to other members of al Qaeda who were overseas. But we didn't know they were here until it was too late."
He said the authorizations have made 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."
"I have reauthorized this program more than 30 times" since the September 11, 2001, attacks and "I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al Qaeda and related groups," he said.
Sources with knowledge of the program told CNN on Friday that Bush signed the secret order in 2002. The sources refused to be identified because the program is classified.
During an interview Friday for PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Bush said he understood that people want him to confirm or deny the Times report, but he couldn't discuss specifics because "it would compromise our ability to protect the people," according to a transcript of the program.
The New York Times report said the NSA has monitored international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants during the past three years as part of its war on terror.
Bill Keller, the Times' executive editor, said in a statement that the newspaper postponed publication of the article for a year at the White House's request as editors pondered the national security issues surrounding the release of the information.
But after considering the legal and civil liberties aspects, and determining that the story could be written without jeopardizing intelligence operations, the paper ran the story, Keller said, emphasizing that information about many NSA eavesdropping operations is public record.
"What is new is that the NSA has for the past three years had the authority to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States without a warrant," Keller said. "It is that expansion of authority -- not the need for a robust anti-terror intelligence operation -- that prompted debate within the government, and that is the subject of the article."
CNN has not confirmed the exact wording of the president's order.
Effect on Patriot Act vote
However, senators contemplating a vote Friday on whether to renew some controversial portions of the Patriot Act used The New York Times' report as evidence that the government could not be trusted with the broad powers laid out in the act. (Read about the Patriot Act vote)
In particular, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said he had been unsure the night before how he would vote.
"Today's revelation that the government listened in on thousands of phone conversations without getting a warrant is shocking and has greatly influenced my vote," he said. "Today's revelation makes it very clear that we have to be very careful -- very careful."
One of Schumer's GOP colleagues, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, seemed troubled by Friday's news and said that the revelation, if true, was "very problemsome, if not devastating" to getting the Patriot Act renewed.
The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman added that his committee would immediately begin investigating the matter and that such behavior "can't be condoned."
Stansfield Turner, a retired Navy admiral who headed the Central Intelligence Agency from 1977 to 1981 under President Jimmy Carter, concurred with Schumer, saying, "Presidents have to conform to the law. All of the agencies of the government have to conform to the law."
CNN's Kelli Arena contributed to this report.
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