We were right to spy on Americans, says Bush

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President George Bush has hit back at critics of his anti-terrorism measures, saying that targeted domestic surveillance by the ultra-secret National Security Agency was vital to protect the country's security.

He also challenged the Senate to drop its filibuster on the Patriot Act, containing enlarged powers for the FBI, and whose key provisions are set to expire at the end of the year. "In a war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment," the President declared yesterday at a year-end press conference at the White House.

His meeting with reporters came barely 12 hours after a primetime television address focused on Iraq - the final stage of a three-week effort to convince the American people that he had a plan to win the increasingly unpopular war, and bring home the 160,000 US troops there.

Drawing a distinction between "legitimate critics" of his policies, and the "defeatists" who would hand victory to the insurgents, Mr Bush insisted in his national address that the US was winning the war, and hailed last week's election as proof of this.

But, striking a notably more realistic note, he acknowledged that bringing peace and democracy to Iraq had been more difficult than expected. He admitted too that his decisions had caused "terrible loss" - a reference to the 2,150 US servicemen and at least 25,000 Iraqis who have died since the March 2003 invasion.

The press conference, however, was dominated by the controversy over surveillance and the wider question of a White House apparently riding roughshod over the constitution to expand its powers. Mr Bush gave no ground on either point, instead turning the issues against his critics.

It was "shameful", he said, that the NSA's domestic eavesdropping had been revealed. Normally, wiretapping is banned in the US without a court warrant. Mr Bush said he bypassed the courts "because we've got to be fast on our feet". Moreover Congress had given him power to do so after the 9/11 attacks. "It is legal to do so. [My] legal authority is derived from the constitution."

It is unclear whether this forthright defence will still his critics. Not only Democrats but also several key Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed concern at the NSA's behaviour, and Arlen Specter, the chairman of the influential Senate Judiciary Committee, plans hearings early next year.

Nor was there any immediate sign of a change of heart by the Senate on the Patriot Act, whose granting of powers to the FBI to demand library and other date records of individuals have generated much unease.

Mr Bush also admitted for the first time that the intelligence mistakes over Iraq's alleged WMD made it harder for him to argue that Iran's nuclear programme posed a threat. "People will say, 'Well, the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore how can we trust the intelligence on Iran?'."

If Britain, France and Germany failed to negotiate a deal to end Tehran's nuclear ambitions, Iran would face sanctions at the United Nations, he warned.