WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that congressional hearings on the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program will be "good for democracy" as long as they don't betray U.S. secrets.
The remarks were a striking reversal by the president, who acknowledged last month that he authorized the NSA program only after it became public in news reports and angrily scolded those who had divulged its existence -- a disclosure he said harmed national security and helped U.S. enemies.
"There will be a lot of hearings and talk" about domestic eavesdropping, Bush said during a town hall-style event in Louisville, Ky. "That's good for democracy -- just so long as the hearings, as they explore whether or not I have the prerogative to make the decision I made, doesn't tell the enemy what we're doing. See, that's the danger."
The comments, at an appearance at which Bush spoke about Iraq and urged the invited audience to "ask me anything you want," came a few weeks before the Senate is expected to open hearings on the NSA activities.
At least one top Bush administration official, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, could be in the hot seat at the hearings; Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, has asked him to appear.
The Justice Department is "reviewing the request" for Gonzales to testify, said Brian Roehrkasse, a department spokesman.
Closed-door hearings by the Intelligence Committee are also expected to scrutinize the operation, which may have skirted the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires special court approval for domestic wiretaps.
Bush defended his decision to authorize the domestic spying -- which, he has said, targeted international communications between people in the United States and suspected terrorists -- after a sympathetic questioner asked him about it and noted that Bush had been "catching a lot of flak" for the program.
"I have the right as the commander in chief in a time of war to take action necessary to protect the American people," Bush said. He added that a 2001 resolution by Congress, allowing him to use force to pursue the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "basically said the president ought to ... protect us. Well, one way to protect us is to understand the nature of the enemy."
Bush acknowledged that there is skepticism about the NSA operation but said he weighed the issue and concluded that it was necessary.
"Look, I understand people's concerns about government eavesdropping. And I share those concerns as well," he said. "So, obviously I had to make the difficult decision between balancing civil liberties and on a limited basis -- and I mean limited basis -- try to find out the intention of the enemy."
Bush, whose Louisville visit was part of a campaign to raise public support for the war, pointed to the recent elections in Iraq as a sign of progress and said Iraq's military was increasingly able to stand on its own. But he acknowledged that the mission is a hard one and that he faces critics.
"Things are good. I'm confident we'll succeed. And it's tough, though," Bush said. "I just want to tell you, whether you agree with me or not, they're not going to shake my will."