The Bush administration is making an aggressive effort this week to defend a domestic spying program being carried out by the National Security Agency. But critics of the program are not backing down, insisting that the president broke the law by authorizing domestic eavesdropping without first obtaining a court warrant.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the surveillance program targets communications with suspected terrorists and is critical to preventing a repeat of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
"This administration has chosen to utilize every necessary and lawful tool at its disposal," he said. "It is hard, quite frankly, to imagine a president, any president, who would not elect to use these tools in defense of the American people. In fact, I think it would be irresponsible to do otherwise."
President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to monitor suspected terrorist communications shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"If they are making phone calls into the United States, we need to know why, to protect you," he said.
But in doing so, the president bypassed a 1978 domestic surveillance law that requires the government to obtain a court warrant before it can begin eavesdropping on American citizens or resident aliens.
Critics contend the president broke the law by using the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a court warrant.
"What the White House did, what the president did, is just go ahead and make up his own law here without the authority of the United States government," said Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin.
Some Republicans have also expressed concerns that the domestic spying program may be a threat to civil liberties.
"Let us have the administration come to Congress," said John McCain, a Republican Senator from Arizona. "I think they will get that authority, whatever is reasonable and needed, and increased abilities to monitor communications are clearly in order."
Several recent polls suggest the public is about evenly split over the question of whether domestic eavesdropping without court permission is justified as part of the war on terror.
But the president's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, recently told a Republican audience that he believes the domestic spying program will help Republicans in this year's congressional midterm elections.
"Republicans have a post 9/11 view of the world and Democrats have a pre 9/11 view of the world," he said. "That does not make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong, wrong deeply and profoundly and consistently."
Political experts agree that the public is divided on the spying program and they predict it could be an election issue in November.
"A majority of Americans living today, a surprisingly small majority because of the large youthful population, still remembers Watergate," said Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "And when we hear the word eavesdropping, those of us who lived during Watergate, we think of the nefarious activities of the Nixon administration."
The Senate will hold hearings on the domestic spying program in early February.