"I will make this point," Bush said. "That whatever I do to protect the American people — and I have an obligation to do so — that we will uphold the law, and decisions made are made understanding we have an obligation to protect the civil liberties of the American people."And this is the main story of the day.
The president spoke in an interview to be aired Friday evening on "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer."
Bush played down the importance of the eavesdropping story. "It's not the main story of the day," Bush told Lehrer. "The main story of the day is the Iraqi elections" for parliament which took place on Thursday.
Neither Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nor White House press secretary Scott McClellan would confirm or deny the report which said the super-secret NSA had spied on as many as 500 people at any given time since 2002 in this country.
That year, following the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush authorized the NSA to monitor the international phone calls and international e-mails of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people inside the United States, the Times reported.
McClellan said the White House has received no requests for information from lawmakers because of the report. "Congress does have an important oversight role," he said.
Before the program began, the NSA typically limited its domestic surveillance to foreign embassies and missions and obtained court orders for such investigations. Overseas, 5,000 to 7,000 people suspected of terrorist ties are monitored at one time.
"This is Big Brother run amok," declared Sen. Edward Kennedy (news, bio, voting record), D-Mass. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., called it a "shocking revelation" that "ought to send a chill down the spine of every senator and every American."
Administration officials reacted to the report by asserting that the president has respected the Constitution while striving to protect the American people.
Rice said Bush has "acted lawfully in every step that he has taken." And McClellan said Bush "is going to remain fully committed to upholding our Constitution and protect the civil liberties of the American people. And he has done both."
The report surfaced as the administration and its GOP allies on Capitol Hill were fighting to save provisions of the expiring USA Patriot Act that they believe are key tools in the fight against terrorism. An attempt to rescue the approach favored by the White House and Republicans failed on a procedural vote Friday morning.
Everything else just went on the back-burner.