Bush's Surveillance Offensive

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Kicking off a new campaign aimed at turning recent revelations about a surveillance program from a political embarrassment to a political cudgel, President Bush rechristened the electronic monitoring that has been widely described as domestic spying or snooping. "Let me talk about... something that you've been reading about in the news lately," he told an audience of 9,000 soldiers and clean-cut Kansas college students Monday afternoon. "It's what I would call a 'terrorist surveillance program.'"

The speech was only part of a high-stakes Administration effort to gain the upper hand before congressional hearings on the surveillance program begin February 6. On Wednesday, Bush will take a field trip to the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md.

The audience in Kansas, one of the nation's most reliably Republican states, was one of the President's biggest since the election. The speech, followed by a question period that covered everything from the Sudan to "Brokeback Mountain," ran 1 hour 40 minutes, one of the longest events of his presidency. He was in a playful mood, donning a purple tie in deference to his hosts, the Wildcats of Kansas State University, and teasing himself during a long answer: "I'm kind of wandering here." He drew appreciative laughs from the supportive but fidgety audience when he finally ended the marathon lunchtime event by saying he had to get home in time for a dinner. Facing proliferating questions about whether he had gone too far with the surveillance and whether he has lost control of operations in Iraq, Bush seemed eager to explain himself. At length. In a clip sure to delight the likes of Jon Stewart, Bush said that his job description of President would be "a decision maker—I make a lot of decisions."

"When I begin to make decisions to protect you, to do my number one priority, rests upon this fact: that there is an enemy which is relentless and desirous to bring harm to the American people because of what we believe in," he said. Bush, hinting at a theme of his State of the Union address next Tuesday, went on to say that the threat to the nation was "not an isolated incident" and that the enemy still "lurks out there." Aides said Bush will say in that address that he has a responsibility to do everything possible to protect the American people, the basic rationale he will continue to use in defense of the surveillance program "You know, it's amazing when people to say to me, 'Well, he was just breaking the law,'" Bush told the K-State crowd, speaking in a basketball arena, Bramlage Coliseum, with his image popping off huge screens on the scoreboard suspended at half court. "If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?" He delivered the line with relish, then leaned on the podium to accept the thunderous applause. The President didn't mention that some Congressional leaders, from both parties, contend that the briefings were inadequate, self-serving or misleading.

Bush's aggressive stance came on the same day that Gen. Michael Hayden, deputy director of the new national intelligence agency and former head of the NSA, defended the controversial electronic monitoring as a perfectly legal tool in the war on terror—and one that he even suggested might have helped avert the attacks of 9/11 if it had been in place then. Both speeches come on the heels of a speech Friday by White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, who signaled that Republicans will use the war on terror in the midterm elections as a way of drawing a sharp contrast with Democrats. White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Friday: "We are stepping up our efforts to educate the American people about this vital tool in the war on terrorism ahead of the congressional hearing." House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said after Bush's speech that he "missed a critical opportunity today to explain why, more than four years after the 9/11 attacks, the American people are not as safe as they should be."

Despite news reports that the program might include a vast data mining effort, Bush sought to portray it as limited. "I repeat to you, even though you hear words, 'domestic spying,' these are not phone calls within the United States," he said. "It's a phone call of an al Qaeda, known al Qaeda suspect, making a phone call into the United States. I'm mindful of your civil liberties, and so I had all kinds of lawyers review the process." In fact, as Bush had said moments before, the program also includes calls that originate in the United States, if one party is a suspected terrorist. That may seem like an important distinction to make. But just as the White House is trying to redefine the terms of its domestic surveillance program, Republican strategists hope that in the end, any criticisms of it will look more like nitpicking.