Bush, Snow Seek to Reassure on Phone Data

President Bush reiterates that his administration did not eavesdrop on the conversations of "ordinary Americans" as questions arise over another program to compile telephone records. Bush and new press secretary Tony Snow were questioned repeatedly about a program to cull millions of phone records.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And now to the White House.

Today President Bush continued his defense of the administration's domestic surveillance program, but the president is refusing to discuss reports that the government is not only tapping calls between Americans and people abroad, but might also be collecting phone records of millions of Americans at home. That was before Verizon's surprise announcement today.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard visited the White House and Mr. Bush briefly took questions from reporters.

NPR's David Green reports.

DAVID GREENE: In President Bush's mind, this was about the sweetest welcome he could give to another world leader.

GEORGE W: I can't think of a country more like, a place more like Texas than Australia. And that's a compliment.

GREENE: Prime Minister John Howard certainly seemed appreciative.

JOHN HOWARD: It's been a privilege for our two peoples to enjoy democracy in an uninterrupted fashion for so long that we tend to take it for granted.

GREENE: When the two leaders took a few questions, Mr. Bush was asked about recent news reports that the National Security Agency, in its pursuit of potential terrorists, has secretly collected the phone records of millions of Americans.

W: The program he's asking about is one that has been fully briefed to members of the United States Congress in both political parties. They're very aware of what is taking place. The American people expect their government to protect them within the laws of this country, and I'm going to continue to do just that.

GREENE: Mr. Bush has spoken before about his government's program to monitor conversations between Americans and suspected terrorists abroad, and he spoke about that today again as well. But here he sounded as though he was confirming for the first time the recent report in USA Today, that the government has gone farther and collected domestic phone records.

TONY SNOW: No, he wasn't.

GREENE: White House Press Secretary Tony Snow:

SNOW: If you take a, if you go back and listen to the answer he gave you, he was talking about foreign to domestic calls. The allegations in the USA piece, which we will neither confirm or deny, are of a different nature so no, he was not giving a backhanded confirmation.

GREENE: That could have been what the President thought he was talking about, but here is the question he was asked by AP Reporter Terry Hunt:

TERRY HUNT: Why shouldn't ordinary people feel that their privacy is invaded by the NSA compiling a list of their telephone calls?

GREENE: Snow was doing a dance made familiar by previous White House spokesmen. But his first day on the job got dramatic when someone asked about his yellow wristband. Snow's eyes began to swell with tears as he spoke about surviving colon cancer last year and about losing his mother to the same disease.

SNOW: Well, I had cancer last year. You know, I mean, and having cancer, it's one of these things, and I'll thank Terry Hunt for having provided, I lost my old one when I was in the hospital having my last cancer surgery. It's going to sound stupid and I'll be personal here but, no, no, just having gone through this last year, and I said this to Chris Wallace, was the best thing that ever happened to me.

GREENE: Spokesman Snow, known for being opinionated in his old job as a Fox News talk show host, had a few moments of refreshing candor. When asked about how many Border Patrol agents the National Guard might free up to focus on enforcement, Snow admitted he didn't know.

SNOW: Well, I didn't, (unintelligible). You know what? Rather than have me fake it, I will get a precise number to you.

GREENE: But the main business of the day was still the visit of Australian Prime Minister Howard, the subject of further festivities tonight. Earlier in the day, an Australian reporter asked Mr. Bush about his chemistry with the Prime Minister.

W: He may not be the prettiest person on the block, but when he tells you something you can take it to the bank.

GREENE: Howard took the compliment in stride.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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