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Report: Bush Authorized Domestic Spying in 2002


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

A report in today's New York Times changed the course of the day at the White House and in Congress. The Times report, quickly picked up in other news media, said President Bush had signed a secret executive order in 2002 to permit eavesdropping on American citizens while they're in the US. The report said the surveillance was done by the National Security Agency.

NORRIS: The story also became part of the debate in the Senate where a filibuster was on against extending parts of the USA Patriot Act. That law eases restrictions on government investigations. We have several reports on this controversy tonight, beginning with its initial impact on the White House. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA reporting:

It was a day the White House had set aside to talk about yesterday's election in Iraq, to point to a major milestone in the creation of a permanent Iraqi government. The president's schedule included an early afternoon meeting with the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The reason he came by to say hello is we want to talk about what a glorious day it was yesterday for the Iraqi citizens and what we're going to do to work together to make sure that we complete our mission.

GONYEA: But the Oval Office photo op ended with shouted questions about reports of domestic spying by the National Security Agency and the secret executive order allowing the agency to bypass the courts. The president ignored those questions, but later in a taped interview airing this evening on public television's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" he was asked about it again. He said he does not discuss ongoing intelligence operations, adding...

Pres. BUSH: 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.

GONYEA: The president also insisted that the domestic spying story was not the main story of the day. But it was the big topic at press secretary Scott McClellan's regular briefing with reporters.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): I just told you why I'm not going to get into discussing ongoing intelligence activities.

Unidentified Woman: You mean, you cannot say whether it's lawful to spy on Americans or not?

Mr. McCLELLAN: We have a Constitution and we have laws...

Unidentified Woman: We're not asking for any details. We're asking you...

Mr. McCLELLAN: That's why I'm making a broad statement to let you know that we...

Unidentified Woman: Very broad.

GONYEA: McClellan said the president's top priority since the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been to prevent more terror attacks, and he said President Bush has worked within the law to do that. But despite repeated questions, McClellan did not say the report of NSA spying on Americans was inaccurate.

Mr. McCLELLAN: We are doing all we can to disrupt plots and prevent attacks from happening. The enemy wants to know exactly what we're doing to go after them and prevent attacks from happening. And we don't want to do anything to compromise sources and methods.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, a group of senators visited the White House today. They met with the president and military officials for a morning briefing on the subject of Iraq. When they emerged from the West Wing, they stepped up to the microphones and each had a statement about the White House topic of the day. Here's Republican Senator John McCain.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): This is a significant moment in the history of Iraq and its movement on the path towards democracy and freedom.

GONYEA: But the senators, too, were peppered with questions about government spying on American citizens. Again, Senator McCain.

Sen. McCAIN: You know, all I know is what I read in the paper, which I know is always totally, absolutely accurate. But obviously we need to look into that. I asked some questions this morning, but the first I knew of it was what I saw this morning in the paper.

Unidentified Man: And how would you feel about such a thing theoretically?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, theoretically, I obviously wouldn't like it. But I don't know the extent of it and I don't know--I don't know enough about it to really make an informed comment. Ask me again in about a week.

GONYEA: One thing clear today was that there would be no such grace period for the Bush administration. Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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