(CNSNews.com) - Democrats and some Republicans want Congress to investigate President Bush's decision to authorize the National Security Agency to secretly monitor the communications of suspected terrorists inside the United States -- without court approval.
In his Dec. 17 radio address to the nation, President Bush said he authorized the NSA "to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations." He did so shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he said.
President Bush described the interceptions as "consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution" and he said before any communications are intercepted, the government "must have information that establishes a clear link" to terrorist networks.
Bush said the authorization is "fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities," and he said the effort is working - it has "helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad."
Democrats and even some Republicans objected to the idea of the government authorizing domestic spying activities without first getting a go-ahead from the courts.
Criticism came from congressional leaders in both parties, who themselves "have been briefed more than a dozen times on this authorization and the activities conducted under it," as President Bush put it.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was 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.
"We all agree that the president must have the best possible intelligence to protect the American people, but that intelligence must be produced in a manner consistent with the United States Constitution and our laws," Pelosi said.
"The president's statement today [Saturday] raises serious questions as to what the activities were and whether the activities were lawful," Pelosi added.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told Fox News Sunday that he also had been briefed - "a couple of months ago," he said. But he also back-pedaled: "The president can't pass the buck on this one," Reid told Fox News. "This is his program. He's commander in chief. But commander in chief does not trump the Bill of Rights."
In a statement on his website, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) questioned "exactly what authority" gives the president the right "to break well-established federal laws."
"We all want to protect the American people from terrorism and will provide all tools necessary to do so. But, we can not allow the fear of terrorism to be used as an excuse to give one branch of government absolute power," Kennedy said.
"Domestic spying is just the latest example of this administration ignoring the law and constitutional protections," Kennedy added.
Republicans expressing concern included Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "There are limits as to what the president can do," and he said he would hold hearings on the secret surveillance program.
Sen. Graham, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation," said in a time of war, he "applauds" the president for being aggressive: "But we cannot set aside the rule of law in a time of war," Graham said.
President Bush said his NSA authorization is a "vital tool in our war against the terrorists" and "critical to saving American lives.
"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 on Saturday. "And that is exactly what I will continue to do, so long as I'm the president of the United States."
President Bush also complained that the New York Times revealed the secret eavesdropping program last week, after it was "improperly" leaked to the newspaper.
"As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk. Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies, and endangers our country," President Bush said.
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