WASHINGTON - Facing angry criticism and challenges to his authority in Congress, President Bush on Saturday unapologetically defended his administration's right to conduct secret post-Sept. 11 spying in the United States as "critical to saving American lives."
Bush said his authority to approve what he called a "vital tool in our war against the terrorists" came from his constitutional powers as commander in chief. He said that he has personally signed off on reauthorizations more than 30 times.
"The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties," Bush said. "And that is exactly what I will continue to do, so long as I'm the president of the United States."
Often appearing angry in an eight-minute address, the president made clear he has no intention of halting his authorizations of the monitoring activities and said public disclosure of the program by the news media had endangered Americans.
James Bamford, author of two books on the NSA, said the program could be problematic because it bypasses a special court set up by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize eavesdropping on suspected terrorists.
"I didn't hear him specify any legal right, except his right as president, which in a democracy doesn't make much sense," Bamford said in an interview. "Today, what Bush said is he went around the law, which is a violation of the law â€” which is illegal."
"I tell you, he's President George Bush, not King George Bush. This is not the system of government we have and that we fought for," Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., told The Associated Press.
Added Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.: "The Bush administration seems to believe it is above the law."