Facing a storm of criticism over a report that the National Security Agency is seeking data on every single telephone call made in the United States, George W. Bush just stepped before the TV cameras to launch a defense. The short version: 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, and leaks are really bad things.
In between his invocation of the terrorist attacks and his condemnation of leaks, the president neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the NSA program detailed in USA Today this morning. Instead, in an awfully transparent attempt to confuse the issue, Bush said that he wanted to assure Americans that "our international activities strictly target al-Qaida and their known affiliates" and that the government "does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval."
Even if the president's assurances were factually correct -- they're not -- they would be irrelevant in the context of USA Today's report. The newspaper wasn't describing the warrantless spying program under which the Bush administration claims to be listening in on telephone calls with suspected terrorists. Rather, it described a much broader program under which the NSA is seeking -- and, in most cases, obtaining -- data on all telephone calls made in the United States. This isn't about listening in when "al-Qaida or their associates are making calls into the United States or out of the United States," as Bush suggested today; it's about collecting information on every single phone call made to or from any home or business in the country.
The president's diversion may confuse the public about the breadth of the NSA program, but it shouldn't work for long. Democrats are expressing shock and outrage over the news that the administration is keeping tabs on the phone calls of tens of millions of Americans, and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter said today that he'll hold hearings into the program. Specter said that he will subpoena representatives of the cooperating telephone companies, if necessary, to find out "what we can't find out from the Department of Justice or other administration officials."