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Bush defends spy program

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Facing a congressional furor over a news report suggesting he authorized a secret database of Americans' domestic phone calls, President Bush denied yesterday that he is spying on innocent citizens' lives, saying that privacy is "fiercely protected" under the National Security Agency's surveillance operation.

The report, in yesterday's editions of USA Today, charged that the NSA has compiled a giant cache of records on tens of millions of Americans making calls within U.S. borders - contradicting Bush's past accounts of the program as one that targets only the international communications of terrorists. It added a new element of uncertainty to Bush's efforts to win confirmation of his new pick to lead the CIA, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, a former NSA director who helped create the surveillance program and has vigorously defended it.

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Bush said the government had not eavesdropped without court approval on domestic calls, but he did not address the report's central allegation: that the supersecret NSA, with the assistance of major telecommunications companies, collected records on such calls without warrants.

"We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," Bush said in a hastily scheduled appearance at the White House. He added that the activities "are focused on links to al-Qaida and their known affiliates."

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Bush's quick move to counter criticism over the report was in line with his administration's view that the public is broadly supportive of the surveillance program. Top Republican strategists contend that an election-year debate over the program offers Bush a potent opportunity to demonstrate that he is willing to be aggressive in efforts to track down terrorists and that Democrats condemn those efforts at their peril.

But many Democrats reacted angrily to the report, saying it represented an abuse of power by Bush, helped along by congressional Republicans reluctant to impose limits on their president.

"Shame on us in being so far behind and being so willing to rubber-stamp anything this administration does," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee who had said she was inclined to be supportive of Hayden's nomination, said she feared that the revelations present a "growing impediment" to his confirmation.

And at least one Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said his Judiciary Committee would hold hearings on the matter, calling on the telephone companies involved - AT&T;, Verizon and BellSouth, according to the report - to provide information.

Other Republicans defended Bush's spying activities and criticized the disclosure of new details as harmful to national security.

"I remain convinced that the program authorized by the president is lawful and absolutely necessary to protect this nation from future attacks," said Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee.

Some former NSA officials expressed skepticism that the program was as broad in scope as reported by USA Today. Two former NSA officials familiar with the initial designs of the program said that a large database on domestic phone records was not part of the plan and that they knew of no such plan that emerged later.

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While phone companies have the capability to send such information to the NSA, said former NSA Director Bobby Ray Inman, the amount of time and money that would be required to build and maintain such a database would far outweigh the terrorist-hunting benefit it would provide.

At least one of the companies alleged to have provided the information denied the story, while others including Qwest, identified in the report as the only company that refused to cooperate, declined to comment on a national security matter.

New information about the possible extent of the NSA program threatened to sour the public mood on the eavesdropping operation.

A more immediate potential result was that Hayden's nomination for the CIA post could be hampered by a reinvigorated debate on Capitol Hill about the sweeping post-9/11 spying activities he helped spearhead.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told CNN last night that he has "substantial questions about General Hayden's credibility."

Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, also an Intelligence Committee member, said she would press Hayden for "real answers" on the program during his confirmation hearings.

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Roberts, the committee chairman, gave no indication that he would delay hearings on Hayden's nomination, scheduled for Thursday. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "We're full-steam ahead" on it.

Bush acknowledged late last year that he had authorized a program in 2001 allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on international communications, originating inside and outside the country, of terrorism suspects. But he and top administration officials have insisted that one end of the communication had to be overseas.

Yesterday Bush said only that the government "does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval."

Hayden, who abruptly scrapped two Capitol Hill meetings yesterday morning as news of the report became the talk of official Washington, appeared in the Senate in the afternoon and defended the program.

"All I would want to say is that everything that NSA does is lawful and very carefully done, and that the appropriate members of the Congress, House and Senate, are briefed on all NSA activities," Hayden said.

But neither the president nor anyone in his administration would comment directly on the existence of a database of U.S. calls.

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"Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues; therefore, we have no information to provide. However, it is important to note that NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law," Don Weber, an NSA spokesman, said in a statement.

Jeff Battcher, vice president of corporate communications for BellSouth, said the company had not given the agency any "call pattern information." The company had not provided any "confidential customer information" without proper legal authority, he said. Verizon - Maryland's dominant phone provider, with phone lines into more than 3 million homes in the state - would not comment on the report.

But a spokesman, Bob Varettoni, said, "We act in full compliance with the law, and we are committed to safeguarding our customers' privacy."

AT&T; spokesman Walt Sharp issued a statement saying the company protects consumer privacy but is also obliged to help the government protect public welfare.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

Sun Reporters Stacey Hirsh and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.


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