Dems, Bush spar over domestic spying


    Democratic senators took the Bush administration to task Friday 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.

    In preparation for Senate hearings, Edward Kennedy of
    Massachusetts noted that President Bush asserted 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 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.

    Introducing
    a proposed Senate resolution, Kennedy and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont
    rejected White House assertions that congressional action after Sept.
    11 authorized warrantless eavesdropping inside the United States.

    A
    joint resolution of Congress authorized the use of force against those
    responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, but it “says nothing about
    domestic electronic surveillance,” Kennedy declared.

    Pushing
    back, Bush plans a Wednesday visit to the NSA, where he will reassert
    his claim 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, based at Fort Meade in Maryland.
    McClellan called the program “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.”

    Sen.
    John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the new audio tape of 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.”

    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 delivering 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 said Bush has committed a crime in authorizing the spying and
    that House Republicans have abdicated their responsibilities by
    refusing to hold hearings.

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

    Meanwhile,
    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 last month.

    “Making their
    argument longer didn’t make it any better,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen,
    D-Md., a Judiciary Committee member. He said Bush’s secret approval of
    warrantless eavesdropping had made congressional debate on the Patriot
    Act meaningless.

    The NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping program is
    “an intelligence operation in search of a legal rationale,” said George
    Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.

    “What the
    president ordered in this case was a crime,” added Turley, who said
    House Republicans are establishing a terrible precedent by not holding
    oversight hearings.

    To fend off criticism, Deputy White House
    Chief of Staff Karl Rove and White House spokesman Scott McClellan
    referred to statements by John Schmidt, a Clinton administration
    associate attorney general 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.

    ___

    AP White House reporter Deb Riechmann contributed to this story.

    © 2006 The Associated Press