Facing angry criticism and challenges to his authority in Congress, US President George W. Bush on Saturday unapologetically defended his administration's right to conduct secret post-Sept. 11 spying in the US as "critical to saving American lives."
One Democrat said Bush was acting more like a king than a democratically elected leader.
Bush's willingness to publicly acknowledge some of the government's most classified activities was a stunning development for a president known to dislike disclosure of even the most mundane inner workings of his White House.
Since October 2001, the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) has monitored, without court-approved warrants, the international phone calls and e-mails of people inside the US.
News of the program comes at a particularly damaging and delicate time. Already, the Bush administration is under fire for allegedly operating secret prisons in Eastern Europe and shipping suspected terrorists to other countries for harsh interrogations.
The NSA program's existence surfaced as the administration and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill were fighting to save the expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the domestic anti-terrorism law enacted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In a stinging failure to Bush, Democrats and a few Republicans who say this law gives so much latitude to law enforcement officials that it threatens US constitutional liberties succeeded Friday in stalling its renewal.
So Bush scrapped the version of his weekly radio address that he had already taped -- on the recent elections in Iraq -- and delivered a live speech from the White House's Roosevelt Room on the Patriot Act and the NSA program.
The gravity with which the White House regarded the situation was evident by the presence in the West Wing on a normally quiet Saturday of many of Bush's closest aides.
Often appearing angry in his eight-minute address, the president lashed out at the senators who blocked the Patriot Act's renewal, branding them as irresponsible.
He also made clear that he has no intention of halting his authorizations of the NSA's monitoring activities and said the public disclosure of the spy operation endangered Americans.
Bush said his authority to approve what he called a "vital tool in our war against the terrorists" came from his constitutional powers as commander in chief. He said that he has personally signed off on reauthorizations more than 30 times since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties," Bush said. "And that is exactly what I will continue to do, so long as I'm the president of the United States."
also see story:
NSA eavesdropping preceded authorization