US President George W. Bush defended a secret order he signed allowing for eavesdropping on people in the United States on Saturday (local time), as he fought for the renewal of the anti-terror USA Patriot Act.
On Capitol Hill, where a hearing has been promised on Bush's order, lawmakers in both parties said they wanted to avoid allowing the Patriot Act to expire. One possibility was a temporary extension until differences could be resolved in efforts to balance national security with civil liberties.
Bush said he made the secret order to allow eavesdropping of people in the United States after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and criticized leaks to the news media about it.
"I authorized the National Security Agency (NSA), consistent with US law and the constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al-Qaida and related terrorist organizations," Bush said a rare live radio address.
"This is a highly classified program that is crucial to our national security," Bush said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, later responded by saying: "The president's statement today raises serious questions as to what the activities were and whether the activities were lawful."
Bush initially refused to confirm a report on Friday in The New York Times about the NSA program, saying he would not discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
On Saturday, the president said he had reauthorized the eavesdropping programme 30 times since the September 11, 2001, and intends to continue it "for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups."
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, voiced concern about the programme and backed plans by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Republican, for a congressional hearing.
"Electronic surveillance is an important law enforcement and intelligence gathering tool, but it can and must be done lawfully, in accordance with our laws and constitution," he said.
Bush's radio address came amid an impasse in Congress over a measure that would extend key provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act that are set to expire on December 31. The law was enacted in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. It granted powers to law enforcement agencies to gain access in secret to library and medical records and other personal data during investigations of suspected terrorist activity.
It also allowed the government to conduct roving wiretaps involving multiple phones without control from a foreign agent or power.
Ex-envoy urges probe
Former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson, whose wife had her CIA cover blown with possible involvement of the White House, called for Congress to investigate President Bush's authorization of secret spying in the United States.
"I can understand how an administration in the heat of battle might see fit to do what they did," Wilson said on Saturday at a conference of Muslim community leaders in suburban Long Beach. "But to do it for so many years without referencing the American legal system makes it worthy of congressional oversight and investigation," he added.