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Democrats, White House step up rhetoric on spying program

By wire services
Published January 21, 2006

WASHINGTON - Democratic senators Friday criticized the Bush administration for four years of domestic spying, while the president fought back with a planned embrace of the intelligence agency that is carrying out the effort.

Introducing a proposed Senate resolution, Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Patrick Leahy of Vermont contended that congressional action after Sept. 11, 2001, did not authorize warrantless eavesdropping inside the United States.

A joint resolution of Congress granted wide powers to the president to catch those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, including the use of force. Kennedy, however, said the resolution "says nothing about domestic electronic surveillance."

Kennedy quoted President Bush as saying in 2004 that "when we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so."

That Bush statement came at the same time the National Security Agency reportedly was engaging - at the president's direction - in warrantless eavesdropping on Americans.

"If President Bush can make his own rules for domestic surveillance, Big Brother has run amok," Kennedy said in a statement.

However, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said a new audiotape of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden threatening attacks on American soil "is a vivid reminder why we must continue to intercept communications between al-Qaida overseas and potential operatives in the United States."

Bush plans a Wednesday visit to the NSA, where he will restate his belief that he has the constitutional authority to let intelligence officials listen in on international phone calls of Americans with suspected ties to terrorists.

"We are stepping up our efforts to educate the American people," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said of the trip to the NSA, which is at Fort Meade in Maryland.

The program is "a critical tool that helps us save lives and prevent attacks. It is limited and targeted to al-Qaida communications, with the focus being on detection and prevention," McClellan said.

On Monday, deputy national intelligence director Mike Hayden, who led the National Security Agency when the program began in October 2001, will speak on the issue at the National Press Club.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is scheduled to deliver a speech on the program in Washington.

Gonzales also plans to testify Feb. 6 about the secret program before the Senate Judiciary Committee where Kennedy and Leahy are members.

House Democrats claim Bush broke the law in authorizing the spying.

Rep. John Conyers, the House Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, and other Democrats met Friday in a mock hearing to hear a panel of lawyers and activists discuss whether Bush had committed an impeachable offense.

The Justice Department on Wednesday issued a 42-page legal justification for the eavesdropping program, an expanded version of a document the agency sent Congress in late December.

In response, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and McClellan pointed to statements by a Clinton administration associate attorney general, John Schmidt, who defended the program.

Schmidt wrote last month in the Chicago Tribune that Bush's authorization of the NSA surveillance is consistent with court decisions and Justice Department positions under prior presidents.

Information from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Cox news service was used in this report.

[Last modified January 21, 2006, 01:34:14]

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