WASHINGTON - Capping a weeklong defense of his administration's controversial domestic surveillance program, President Bush yesterday passionately rejected any notion that he is "circumventing" a federal law that requires a court order for monitoring private communication, and suggested he will resist attempts to change that law.
In advance of his State of the Union speech set for 9 p.m. Tuesday, Mr. Bush was clearly determined to go on the offensive on his national security policy. He repeatedly insisted that he has done nothing illegal in permitting law enforcement officials to eavesdrop on conversations of Americans suspected of having contact with terrorists abroad. He said it is not necessary to go to the courts retroactively for warrants, as many think the law requires.
With former Vice President Al Gore openly accusing him of violating the law on the matter, Mr. Bush insisted: "There's no doubt in my mind it is legal. The program's legal. It's designed to protect civil liberties. And it's necessary."
There has been some talk on Capitol Hill, including comments from some Republicans, that Congress should modify the policy and force the President to abide by such restrictions. But Mr. Bush suggested he would oppose such an effort on grounds it might compromise the program and give out information that could help terrorists.
As part of a campaign to bolster support for the program, he visited the highly secretive NSA headquarters this week, and administration officials have publicly made the legal case for monitoring the calls and e-mails of people inside the United States who are commu-nicating with suspected terrorists overseas.
Mr. Bush was asked why he felt a need to "circumvent" FISA, which requires the government to seek warrants from a special, closed-door court before it monitors domestic calls. In an emergency, the government can notify the court within 72 hours after beginning the wiretapping.
"Wait a minute," Mr. Bush said, objecting to the word "circumvent." "It's like saying, 'You know, you're breaking the law.' I'm not. See, that's what you've got to understand. I am upholding my duty and, at the same time, doing so under the law and with the Constitution behind me. That's just very important for you to understand. You know, circumventing is a loaded word," he said sternly. "And I refuse to accept it, because I believe what I'm doing is legally right."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), arguing that hearings will be needed to understand what has occurred, said, "We just don't know" about the program's legality. "We don't want any president, Democrat or Republican, to have unfettered, above-the-law power to spy on the American people."
Mr. Bush, calling the surveillance program "so important and so sensitive," suggested that attempts to revise it might expose America's tactics to its enemies, presumably because it would mean either public congressional hearings or closed ones that would leak. "If the attempt to write law ... is likely to expose the nature of the program, I'll resist it," he said.
Yesterday he took questions for most of the 46-minute press conference in the White House briefing room and appeared confident and jovial, eager to joust with reporters.
He also offered a broad preview of the State of the Union address. In that speech, he plans to tout the current economic expansion, call on Congress to make his tax cuts permanent, and outline plans for making health care more affordable.
And on a day the militant Islamic faction Hamas won a majority of seats in Palestinian elections, he reiterated his administration's policy of not dealing with Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel.
He also tried to distance himself from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff while refusing to release White House pictures taken of him with Abramoff.
"I frankly don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy. I don't know him," Mr. Bush said. "But I can't say I didn't ever meet him."
The remarks came at a wide-ranging, impromptu White House news conference in which he continued to defend his domestic spying program, embraced a Russian proposal to end the stalemate over Iran's nuclear activities, and carefully interpreted a militant Islamic group's stunning victory Wednesday in Palestinian parliamentary elections.
His recollection of Abramoff was fuzzy, but the high-flying lobbyist was well known in political fund-raising circles, including the Bush-Cheney campaign, which received a $6,000 contribution from him. The campaign donated the money to the American Heart Association earlier this month after Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud charges and agreed to help federal prosecutors in their probe of possible corruption in Congress and the White House.
Since Abramoff's plea, administration officials have acknowledged he met with some White House staffers but won't say whom or about what. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has said Abramoff was in the White House at least twice for Hanukkah parties, where he may have had pictures taken with President Bush.
Administration officials want to keep any Bush-Abramoff pictures from becoming public to avoid giving political opponents ammunition that could hurt Republicans in November's congressional elections.
"Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean I'm a friend or know them very well. I've had my picture taken with you at holiday parties," the President reminded reporters. He estimated that he'd posed for about 9,000 photos at receptions this past holiday season alone.
"I'm also mindful we live in a world in which those pictures will be used for pure political purposes, and they're not relevant to the probe," he said.
Ann McFeatters, chief of The Blade's Washington bureau, contributed to this report.