US President George W. Bush is standing firmly behind his domestic spying program, saying his decision to let the intelligence community listen in on phone calls Americans have with suspected terrorists is lawful and does not result in widespread domestic eavesdropping.
Bush, whose decision will be discussed in congressional hearings on the surveillance, said on Sunday that the program, run by the ultra-secret National Security Agency (NSA), is limited. He left little doubt that he intends to vigorously argue that he acted within the law.
"The NSA program is one that listens to a few numbers," the president told reporters after visiting with 51 wounded troops and their families at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
"In other words, the enemy is calling somebody and we want to know who they're calling and why," he said before returning to Washington.
Senators suggested, meanwhile, that congressional hearings were appropriate for considering Bush's assertion that he did not overstep his constitutional authority in authorizing the program after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
His order gave the NSA permission to eavesdrop without a warrant on communications between suspected terrorists overseas and people inside the US.
Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told CNN's Late Edition that Congress will focus in the new year on presidential powers in wartime. "The White House wants to expand that power in so many areas," he said. "Clearly, Congress is holding back."
The New York Times disclosed last month that the NSA had been conducting the domestic surveillance since 2002. The Justice Department on Friday opened an investigation into who told reporters about the program.
"The fact that somebody leaked this program causes great harm to the United States," Bush said.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, appearing on Fox News Sunday, said the Justice Department investigation should explore the motivation of the person who leaked the information.
"Was this somebody who had an ill purpose, trying to hurt the United States?" Schumer asked. "Or might it have been someone in the department who felt that this was wrong, legally wrong, that the law was being violated?"
Bush didn't answer a reporter's question about whether he was aware of any resistance to the program at high levels of his administration and how that might have influenced his decision to approve it.
The Times reported on Sunday that a top Justice Department official objected in 2004 to aspects of the NSA program and would not sign off on its continued use as required by the administration's guidelines.
James Comey, a top deputy to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, was concerned with the program's legality and oversight, the Times and Newsweek magazine reported. Administration officials then went to Ashcroft, in a hospital for gall bladder surgery, to gain his approval but it was unclear whether he gave it, the Times said.