Byrd Says Bush Is Spying on 'Innocent Americans'

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:31 PM EDT

( - Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WVA) wants to know where President Bush gets the authority to "steal into the lives of innocent American citizens and spy."

In speech on Monday, Byrd -- known as a constitutional scholar -- said there is no basis in the law or the Constitution for President Bush to authorize electronic surveillance on American citizens without getting a warrant.

President Bush made it clear on Monday that the scope of the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program is limited -- subject to review every 45 days, affecting only communications where one party is outside the country, and only targeting "those with known links to al Qaeda."

But Byrd and other lawmakers, including some Republicans, raised strong objections.

Byrd accused President Bush of usurping the Third Branch of government by directing the National Security Agency to intercept and eavesdrop on the phone conversations and e-mails of American citizens without a warrant. Byrd called it a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.

"He has stiff-armed the People's Branch of government," Byrd said of Bush. "He has rationalized the use of domestic, civilian surveillance with a flimsy claim that he has such authority because we are at war."

The senator described the president's executive order authorizing the NSA eavesdropping as an "end-run" around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which set up a special court to handle requests for warrants in domestic spying cases.

"What is the president thinking?" Byrd asked. "Congress has provided for the very situations which the president is blatantly exploiting.

He noted that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, housed in the Department of Justice, reviews requests for warrants in cases of domestic surveillance.

"The court can review these requests expeditiously and in times of great emergency," Byrd said. "In extreme cases, where time is of the essence and national security is at stake, surveillance can be conducted before the warrant is even applied for."

Byrd criticized the president for advancing a "trust me" mentality.

"These astounding revelations about the bending and contorting of the Constitution to justify a grasping, irresponsible administration under the banner of "national security" are an outrage," Byrd said.

"Congress can no longer sit on the sidelines. It is time to ask hard questions of the attorney general, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and the director of the CIA. The White House should not be allowed to exempt itself from answering the same questions simply because it might assert some kind of 'executive privilege' in order to avoid further embarrassment," Byrd said.

'Monitoring' vs 'detecting'

At his press conference on Monday, President Bush said he didn't blame lawmakers for being concerned about the NSA eavesdropping program.

"I can fully understand why members of Congress are expressing concerns about civil liberties," Bush said, adding that he shares those concerns. "I want to make sure the American people understand, however, that we have an obligation to protect you, and we're doing that and at the same time, protecting your civil liberties."

"We monitor this program carefully," Bush said. "We have consulted with members of the Congress over a dozen times. We are constantly reviewing the program. Those of us who review the program have a duty to uphold the laws of the United States, and we take that duty very seriously."

Bush said the FISA courts are for "long-term monitoring," whereas the NSA program is used to detect what a "quick and lethal" enemy is up to.

Bush stressed that there is a "difference between detecting so we can prevent (the NSA program) and monitoring (FISA courts)."

Dems distance themselves

Sen. Byrd is not the only Democrat blasting the president. Even some of the Democrats who were briefed on the program are now complaining that they had no input into Bush's decision to authorize the NSA eavesdropping.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) released a statement Monday, saying, "The record needs to be set clear that the administration never afforded members briefed on the [NSA] program an opportunity to either approve or disapprove the NSA program."

Rockefeller said he raised concerns in a 2003 letter about his ability to evaluate or endorse the eavesdropping program.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said on Sunday that she was also among those who were told about the NSA's "unspecified activities," but she said she considered the briefings to be "notification -- not a request for approval."

"As is my practice whenever I am notified about such intelligence activities, I expressed my strong concerns during these briefings," Pelosi said in a statement.

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