WASHINGTON -- Former vice president Al Gore and the White House traded accusations over national security yesterday in a dispute that also pulled in President Bush's other presidential election rival, Senator John F. Kerry.
At issue was Bush's secret domestic eavesdropping program, which Gore denounced in a speech Monday as illegal and a threat to the US system of government.
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan shot back at Gore in a style reminiscent of campaigns past, calling the Democrat who lost to Bush in 2000 a hypocrite and accusing him of grandstanding for media coverage.
''If Al Gore is going to be the voice of the Democrats on national security matters, we welcome it," McClellan said. He suggested Gore does not understand the threat facing America from terrorists overseas.
Gore said Bush broke the law by allowing the National Security Agency to monitor e-mails and phone calls to and from the United States without approval from a special federal court that authorizes requests to eavesdrop on Americans.
Two civil liberties groups -- the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights -- filed federal lawsuits yesterday seeking to block the eavesdropping program, which they called unconstitutional surveillance of American citizens.
McClellan said the Clinton-Gore administration had engaged in warrantless physical searches, and he noted the FBI search of the home of CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames without permission from a judge. He said Clinton's deputy attorney general, Jamie Gorelick, had testified before Congress that the president had the inherent authority to engage in physical searches without warrants.
But at the time of the Ames search in 1993 and when Gorelick testified a year later, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required warrants for electronic surveillance for intelligence purposes, but did not cover physical searches. The law was changed to cover physical searches in 1995 under legislation that Clinton supported and signed. Bush's attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, made the same arguments as McClellan during interviews Monday on CNN's ''Larry King Live" and Fox News Channel's ''Hannity & Colmes."
''His charges are factually wrong," Gore said in a written statement yesterday. ''Both before and after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was amended in 1995, the Clinton-Gore administration complied fully and completely with the terms of the law."
Kerry said yesterday on CNN that he agrees with Gore, that Bush has ''definitely" broken the law. He said it's difficult to get recourse in a GOP-held Congress.