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Democrats Question Legality of Domestic Surveillance

Senate Democrats are questioning the legality of an intelligence program authorized by President Bush to secretly monitor telephone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and suspected terrorists in other countries. Controversy over the intelligence program has sparked wider concerns about government spying on U.S. citizens.

Senate Democrats are backing calls for congressional hearings into the secret program, as they question whether President Bush had the legal authority to approve the wiretapping of American citizens in the United States without court oversight.

"The President does not have a leg to stand on legally with regard to this program," said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat,

At a news conference, President Bush defended his decision to authorize the program, saying it was a necessary measure to protect Americans from terrorist attacks. He said he approved the wiretapping without court orders because it would allow authorities to move more quickly in detecting potential threats.

But Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, rejected the president's rationale, saying authorities can act quickly under existing law:

"He cannot just use the necessity to move quickly as an excuse to bypass the law, which we put in place, which is a true check on executive power," said Senator Levin.

Congressional concern over the program was a contributing factor to last Friday's Senate vote blocking action on the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act, which is set to expire at the end of the month.

Many Senators, led by minority Democrats, want stronger civil liberties protections in the legislation extending the law, which gives the government greater authority to track suspected terrorists. The House of Representatives has already approved the measure.

President Bush repeated his call on the Senate to end the delay and pass the bill.

A number of Democrats, and some Republicans, favor extending the current law by three months to allow lawmakers to craft legislation with stronger civil liberties' safeguards, a proposal opposed by Mr. Bush.

Democrats say if the Senate cannot break its deadlock and the Patriot Act expires at the end of the month, it will be the president who is to blame because he opposes the short-term extension of the current law.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada is the Senate's top Democrat:

"The burden of it not being in effect is solely on the shoulders of the president, without any question," said Mr. Reid.

Legislation to reauthorize the Patriot Act remains on the Senate floor, and Republican leaders are urging Senators to continue debating the bill in hopes of building more support for passage this week.

But Senator Reid says the legislation is all but dead.