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Cheney: Spy program key to terror war

AP | January 20 2006

Vice President Dick Cheney defended the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program Thursday, calling it an essential tool in monitoring al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

But Cheney stressed the program was limited in scope and had been conducted in a way that safeguarded civil liberties.

"A spirit of debate is now under way, and our message to the American people is clear and straightforward: These actions are within the president's authority and responsibility under the Constitution and laws, and these actions are vital to our security," Cheney said in a luncheon speech at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

Cheney said the surveillance program had addressed a concern of the 9/11 Commission that the government had difficulty linking the activities of domestic and international terrorists.

"It's hard to think of any category of information that could be more important to the safety of the United States than international communication, one end of which we have reason to believe is related to al Qaeda," Cheney said.

President Bush has acknowledged that beginning in October 2001 he authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails of people within the United States without seeking warrants from the courts.

The program has come under heavy criticism by congressional Democrats and civil libertarians and is now the focus of at least two federal lawsuits.

Cheney told the audience Bush had reauthorized the program more than 30 times since 2001 and would continue to do so.

Also Thursday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sent congressional leaders a 42-page legal defense of warrantless eavesdropping, expanding on arguments that he and other administration officials have been making since the program was first disclosed last month.

The memo argues that Bush has authority to order the warrantless wiretapping under the Constitution and the post-September 11 congressional resolution granting him broad power to fight al Qaeda.

Gonzales said the analysis was needed to counter critics of the program and show the public that "there's another side to this debate."

Cheney did not directly address an audio tape aired Thursday by Al-Jazeera in which a voice, determined by the CIA to be that of Osama bin Laden, said al Qaeda planned further attacks on the United States.

But Cheney said it was "more than obvious" the nation faced continued terrorist threats.

"The enemy that struck on 9/11 is weakened, fractured, but still lethal and still determined to hit us again," he said. "Either we are serious about fighting this war on terror or we are not."

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