US Democratic senators took the Bush administration to task on Friday for four years of domestic spying, while the president fought back with announcement of a planned embrace of the intelligence agency that is doing the spying.
In preparation for Senate hearings, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy noted that Bush had 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 (NSA) 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.
Introducing a proposed Senate resolution, Kennedy and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy rejected White House assertions that congressional action after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks authorized eavesdropping inside the US without court warrants.
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 said.
Pushing back, Bush is slated to visit the NSA on Wednesday, to reassert his claim that he has constitutional authority to let intelligence officials listen in to 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 about 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 to and targeted at al-Qaeda communications, with the focus being on detection and prevention.''
Deputy National Intelligence Director Mike Hayden, who led the NSA when the program began in October 2001, will speak tomorrow about the issue at the National Press Club in Washington.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is delivering a speech on the program in Washington.
Gonzales also plans to testify about the secret program on Feb. 6 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Kennedy and Leahy are members.
House Democrats contend that Bush committed a crime in authorizing the spying, and Republicans in the House of Representatives have abdicated their responsibilities by refusing to hold hearings.
Representative John Conyers, the House Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, and other Democrats met in a basement room of a House office building on Friday to hear a panel of lawyers and activists discuss whether Bush had committed an impeachable offense.
The Justice Department issued on Wednesday a 42-page legal justification for the eavesdropping program, an expanded version of a document the agency sent Congress late last month.
"Making their argument longer didn't make it any better," said Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen, a judiciary committee member.