Bush Comes Out Swinging on Domestic Surveillance

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Perhaps liberated by his contrite address to the nation on Sunday night, President Bush was feisty and frisky at Monday's White House press conference. The event—one of his least favorite presidential rituals—comes as Bush faces a potentially grave showdown with Republican legislators over his decision to authorize limited eavesdropping in the U.S. without court approval. But the President poked fun at himself for the rarity of his news conferences, bridled at a reporter's suggestion that he was assuming "unchecked power" during wartime, and reminded everyone who was in charge when April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks asked a double-barreled question. Bush seems to like Ryan, who reaches a largely African-American audience and occasionally asks about the President's faith-based initiatives. "Thank you for violating the multiple-part question rule," Bush said playfully. "I didn't know there was a law on that," Ryan shot back. "There's not a law," Bush said, to rising laughter from his staff and the press. "It's an executive order. In this case, not monitored by the Congress. Nor is there any administrative oversight."

The President, who heads out Wednesday for 10 nights at Camp David and the Crawford ranch, may have been smiling, but he wasn't kidding. Ever since taking office, Bush and Vice President Cheney have pushed to reclaim executive prerogative, and the 9/11 attacks gave them a huge opportunity to do so. But Bush has found himself on the defensive over the report in Friday's New York Times that since 2002, he has secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on callers inside the United States who are suspected of terrorist activity, without first obtaining the court-approved warrants required by law for domestic spying. The White House was caught flat-footed by the revelation, and has vigorously defended the program over the past three days. "As President and Commander-in-Chief, I have the constitutional responsibility and the constitutional authority to protect our country," he said in his opening statement Monday, adding that the policy covered only calls where one of the parties was out of the United States: "If you're calling from Houston to L.A., that call is not monitored." In response to a question, he clapped a palm toward his heart as he said firmly, "I think I've got the authority to move forward."

The President did, however, seem to want to discourage the Republicans on Capitol Hill from holding hearings on the domestic spying policy. "Any public hearings on programs will say to the enemy: 'Here's what they do; adjust,'" he said. "This is a war. Of course, we consult with Congress and have been consulting with Congress and will continue to do so." Bush reacted with both the evil eye and the scolding finger when Peter Baker of the Washington Post asked: "If the global war on terror is going to last for decades, as has been forecast, does that mean that we're going to see, therefore, a more or less permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the executive in American society?" Bush anwered, "To say 'unchecked power' basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject."

Asked by David E. Sanger of The New York Times if one of the side effects of the intelligence failure on Iraq "has been that it has limited your ability to deal with future threats like Iran, like North Korea," Bush began by saying: "Sanger, I hate to admit it, but that's an excellent question." In what may have been a Freudian slip, Bush at one point said "Saddam" for a second before correcting himself to "Osama bin Laden." It came in the course of a story in defense of the domestic surveillance exception that he liked so much, he told it twice. "In the late 1990s," he said, "our government was following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone. And then the fact that we were following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone made it into the press as the result of a leak. And guess what happened? Saddam—Osama bin Laden changed his behavior. He began to change how he communicated."

Responding to one of April Ryan's questions, Bush said that one of the most hurtful things he can hear is the charge that he doesn't care about African-Americans. "I've got to do a better job of communicating, I guess, to certain folks," he said. "Because my job is to say to people, we're all equally American, and the American opportunity applies to you just as much as somebody else. And so I will continue to do my best, April, to reach out."

Bush also revisited an April 2004 question from John Dickerson, then of TIME magazine and now of Slate.com, who had asked what his biggest mistake had been since 9/11, and what he had learned from it. This time, it was John Roberts of CBS News doing the asking. Bush replied cheekily: "Answering Dickerson's question. No, I—the last time those questions were asked, I really felt like it was an attempt for me to say it was a mistake to go into Iraq. And it wasn't a mistake to go into Iraq. It was the right decision to make." Roberts had referenced the President's burst of candor in the past week, and Bush said: "The point I'm trying to make to the American people in this, as you said, candid dialogue—I hope I've been candid all along; but in the candid dialogue—is to say, we're constantly changing our tactics to meet the changing tactics of an enemy." Steadfast but flexible. It's the old Bush, with a new wrinkle. The President referred during the news conference to "the sweep of history." He is convinced that, not niggling reporters, is his ultimate audience.