WASHINGTON -- Former vice president Al Gore called yesterday for an independent investigation of President Bush's domestic spying program, contending the president ''repeatedly and insistently" broke the law by eavesdropping on Americans without court approval.
Speaking on Martin Luther King Jr.'s national holiday, the man who lost the 2000 presidential election to Bush was interrupted repeatedly by applause as he called the antiterrorism program ''a threat to the very structure of our government."
Gore said the administration acted without congressional authority and made a ''direct assault" on a special federal court that authorizes requests to eavesdrop on Americans.
One judge on the court resigned last month, voicing concerns about the National Security Agency's surveillance of e-mails and phone calls.
A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, Tracey Schmitt, attacked Gore's comments shortly after his address.
''Al Gore's incessant need to insert himself in the headline of the day is almost as glaring as his lack of understanding of the threats facing America," Schmitt said. ''While the president works to protect Americans from terrorists, Democrats deliver no solutions of their own, only diatribes laden with inaccuracies and anger."
Gore's speech was sponsored by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and The Liberty Coalition, two organizations that have expressed concern about the policy.
The former vice president said Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should name a special counsel to investigate the program, citing the attorney general's ''obvious conflict of interest" as a member of the Bush Cabinet as well as the nation's top law enforcement officer.
Gonzales has agreed to testify publicly at a Senate hearing on the program, and he said at a news conference recently that the president acted ''consistent with his legal authority" to protect Americans from a terrorist threat.
Gore, speaking at DAR Constitution Hall, said the concerns are especially important on the King holiday because the slain civil rights leader was among thousands of Americans whose private communications were intercepted by the US government.
The FBI wiretapped King's telephone conversations and kept a file on him and thousands of other civil rights activists, as well as Vietnam War foes.
Gore said there is still much to learn about the domestic surveillance program, but he already has drawn a conclusion about its legality.
''What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the president of the United States has been breaking the law repeatedly and insistently," Gore maintained.
Bush has pointed to a congressional resolution passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that authorized him to use force in the fight against terrorism as allowing him to order the program.
Gore had a different view, contending that Bush failed to persuade Congress to support a domestic spying program, so he ''secretly assumed that power anyway, as if congressional authorization was a useless bother."
He said the spying program must be considered along with other administration actions as a constitutional power grab by the president.
Gore cited imprisoning American citizens without charges in terrorism cases, mistreatment of prisoners -- including torture -- and seizure of individuals in foreign countries and delivering them to autocratic regimes ''infamous for the cruelty of their techniques."
Gore did not criticize government officials only. Referring to news reports that private telecommunications companies have provided the Bush administration with access to private information on Americans, Gore said any company that did so should immediately end its complicity in the program.