President Bush mounted a forceful defense today of his administration's controversial domestic wiretapping program, saying it was both legal and a necessary component of the war on terror.
"It's a different kind of war with a different kind of enemy," he told the crowd of 9,000 during a speech at Kansas State University. "There's an enemy that still wants to harm the American people."
As part of the program, National Security Agency agents monitor phone calls within the United States to try to identify possible terror threats. The program first came to light after the New York Times published a story based on leaked information.
"If they [terrorists] are making a phone call in the United States, it seems to me that we want to know why," Bush said.
White House counsel Dan Bartlett told ABC News' "Good Morning America" that the program was vital and within the president's constitutional authority.
"It's a program to make sure that we connect the dots," Bartlett said. "It's not some sort of roving domestic spying program. It's a carefully tailored program to survey the enemy."
'Congress Gave Me the Authority'
"If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?" Bush said during the speech.
Some top Democrats, including former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore, have said that President Bush is breaking the law by monitoring domestic phone calls without a warrant. Critics argue that the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 allows the gathering of "foreign intelligence information" between or among "foreign powers," but not people within the United States.
In 2001, FISA was rolled into the Patriot Act and modified to include terrorists who were not necessarily backed by a foreign government. The president is supposed to authorize the surveillance through the attorney general -- in essence, get a warrant.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said that if Bush needed the law to be modified to protect the country, "then come to us and tell us. … There is a way to protect the Constitution and not go off on your own and violate it."
During his speech, Bush said his action was warranted.
"Federal courts have consistently ruled the president has authority under the Constitution to conduct surveillance on their enemies," he said. "Congress gave me the authority, but it didn't prescribe the tactics."
The Senate Judiciary Committee, lead by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., will hold a hearing on the program in February.
In response, the administration has launched a full court press to turn the wiretapping issue into a political asset. On Friday, the president's chief adviser, Karl Rove, delivered a scathing speech that implied that Democrats who questioned the wiretapping program were not willing to fully protect Americans from another Sept. 11.
This week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, a former head of the NSA, will speak out in favor of the program. On Wednesday, Bush will visit the NSA.
Bartlett said that, had the story not been leaked, the wiretapping program would continue unimpeded and would not be an issue.
"It would be our choice not to have to talk about this at all, but the fact of the matter is that it was leaked to the New York Times," Bartlett said.
But since the program has come to light, even some Republicans have expressed doubt about its legality. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the president should have approached Congress about his plans and that he most likely would have gotten approval. Not consulting with the legislative branch is overzealous on the part of the executive branch, he said.
Adding to the administration's headaches, Time magazine recently said it had five pictures of the president with embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, even though the president said that he did not know him.
Bartlett said that there was no nefarious connection between the two and that the president most likely posed for a picture with Abramoff at a fund-raising event, which is routine.
Bartlett maintained that the president had behaved perfectly legally, both where Abramoff and the NSA were concerned.
"We do have the legal authority to do what we are doing," Bartlett said. "We have the necessity to do what we are doing."