In First News Conference of 2006, Bush Says Warrantless Wiretaps Legal

By: TERENCE HUNT, AP White House Correspondent

(AP) President Bush again defended his program of warrantless surveillance Thursday, saying “there’s no doubt in my mind it is legal.” He suggested that he might resist congressional efforts to change or expressly endorse it.

“The program’s legal, it’s designed to protect civil liberties, and it’s necessary,” Bush told a White House news conference.

Democrats have accused the president of breaking the law in allowing eavesdropping on overseas communications to and from U.S. residents, and even some members of his own party have questioned the practice.

It was the president’s first full-scale news conference of the new year, and the 10th since he was re-elected in 2004. He previewed his upcoming State of the Union address and fielded questions on former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the stunning victory of the radical group Hamas in Palestinian elections and the administration’s cooperation with Congress on its investigation of Hurricane Katrina.

Asked if he would support efforts in Congress to spell out his authority to continue the eavesdropping program, Bush cited what he said was the extreme delicacy of the operation.

“But it’s important for people to understand that this program is so sensitive and so important that if information gets out to how we run it or how we operate it, it’ll help the enemy,” he said. “Why tell the enemy what we’re doing?”

“We’ll listen to ideas. But I want to make sure that people understand that if the attempt to write law makes this program — is likely to expose the nature of the program, I’ll resist it,” he said.

On the Middle East, Bush expressed concern that Palestinian elections had given a majority to the radical party Hamas, which has called for the elimination of Israel, although he noted that democratic elections sometimes produce unwelcome results.

He made it clear that any organization that has an armed wing and which advocates violence against Israel “is a party with which we will not deal.”

Bush called the election results a “wake-up call” to the old guard Palestinian leadership, many of whom are holdovers from the days of the late PLO ChairmanYasser Arafat.

Questioned about a controversy swirling about disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Bush said he would cooperate with federal prosecutors investigating Abramoff and his alleged influence peddling activities, if necessary. Otherwise, the president said he saw no reason to release pictures that he acknowledged were taken of him and Abramoff.

“There is a serious investigation going on by federal prosecutors _ that’s their job,” the president said. “If they believe something was done inappropriately in the White House, they’ll come and look and they’re welcome to do so.”

Otherwise, Bush said, “I’ve had my picture taken with a lot of people. Having my picture taken with someone doesn’t mean that I’m a friend with him or know him very well. “

“I’ve had my picture taken with you,” Bush said to the reporter who asked the question.

Pressed further on his relationship with Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from his lobbying practices and has pledged to cooperate with investigators, Bush said, “I frankly don’t even remember having my picture taken with the guy. I don’t know him.”

He said that federal investigators should pursue all leads and “look into all aspects of his influence on Capitol Hill,” and that if the path also leads to the White House, he was sure they would “come knock on the door.”

He was asked if he meets with lobbyists. “I try not to,” Bush replied.

Asked about assertions by some Democrats that they will take back control of Congress in this year’s midterm elections, Bush said he wasn’t surprised they were talking that way, but shrugged it off.

He said he was ready to hit the campaign trail one more time, not for himself, but to stump for Republican congressional candidates this year. “We’ve got a record and a good one, and that’s what I intend to campaign on,” Bush said.

The president defended his administration’s level of cooperation with congressional investigations into the government’s slow response to the Hurricane Katrina devastation, citing the thousands of documents the White House has provided.

Questioned on congressional complaints that more could be done, Bush said that it would have a “chilling effect” on the ability of presidential advisers to speak freely.

Bush also said that his nominee for Supreme Court, Samuel Alito, deserves to be confirmed in the Senate, where he clearly has the votes but where minority-party Democrats were speaking out against him at length.

“The Senate needs to give him an up or down vote as soon as possible,” Bush said in opening remarks that also previewed the themes of his State of the Union address next Tuesday.

Bush shrugged off a recent Pentagon-contracted report which concluded the Army was overextended and the United States cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency there.

The president predicted victory in Iraq and said, “Our commanders will have the troops necessary to do that.”

He said the military was focused on transforming itself to ensure the armed forces could meet its goals in the 21st century.

“After five years of war, there is a need to make sure that our troops are balanced properly, that threats are met with capability. And that’s why we’re transforming our military,” Bush said.

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