WASHINGTON -- Democratic senators took the Bush administration to task yesterday for four years of domestic spying, while the president fought back with a planned embrace of the intelligence agency that is carrying out the effort.
In preparation for Senate hearings, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts noted that President Bush asserted in 2004 that ''when we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so."
That Bush statement was made at the same time the National Security Agency was engaging -- at the president's direction -- in warrantless eavesdropping on Americans.
''If President Bush can make his own rules for domestic surveillance, Big Brother has run amok," Kennedy said in a prepared statement.
Introducing a proposed Senate resolution, Kennedy and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont rejected White House assertions that congressional action after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, authorized warrantless eavesdropping inside the United States.
A joint resolution of Congress authorized the use of force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, but it ''says nothing about domestic electronic surveillance," Kennedy said.
Pushing back, Bush plans a Wednesday visit to the NSA, where he will reassert his belief that he has the constitutional authority to let intelligence officials listen in on international phone calls of Americans with suspected ties to terrorists.
''We are stepping up our efforts to educate the American people," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said of the trip to the NSA, based at Fort Meade in Maryland. McClellan called the program ''a critical tool that helps us save lives and prevent attacks. It is limited and targeted to Al Qaeda communications, with the focus being on detection and prevention."
On Monday, deputy national intelligence director Mike Hayden, who led the NSA when the program began in October 2001, will speak on the issue at the National Press Club.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is scheduled to deliver a speech on the program in Washington.
Gonzales also plans to testify on Feb. 6 about the secret program before the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Kennedy and Leahy are members.
House Democrats said that Bush has committed a crime in authorizing the spying and that House Republicans have abdicated their responsibilities by refusing to hold hearings.
Representative John Conyers, the House Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, and other Democrats met yesterday to hear a panel of lawyers and activists discuss whether Bush had committed an impeachable offense.
The Justice Department on Wednesday issued a 42-page legal justification for the eavesdropping program, an expanded version of a document the agency sent Congress in late December.
''Making their argument longer didn't make it any better," said Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who is also a Judiciary Committee member.
Van Hollen said Bush's secret approval of warrantless eavesdropping had made congressional debate on the Patriot Act meaningless.
The eavesdropping program is ''an intelligence operation in search of a legal rationale," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.
''What the president ordered in this case was a crime," added Turley, who said House Republicans are establishing a bad precedent by not holding oversight hearings.
In an effort to fend off criticism, McClellan and Karl Rove, deputy White House chief of staff, referred to statements by a Clinton administration associate attorney general, John Schmidt, who defended the program.
Schmidt wrote last month in the Chicago Tribune that Bush's authorization of the NSA surveillance is consistent with court decisions and Justice Department positions under prior presidents.