By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
The White House fired back at critics of President Bush in unusually tough terms yesterday as a pair of civil liberties organizations went to court in an effort to shut down the administration's domestic spying program as unconstitutional.
On a day that evoked the presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004 -- and perhaps that of 2008 -- Bush's chief spokesman lashed out at former vice president Al Gore for "hypocrisy" and at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for "out of bounds" criticism. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) joined the fray by accusing Bush of breaking the law.
The barrage was the latest episode in the uproar sparked by last month's disclosure that Bush authorized warrantless surveillance of telephone calls and e-mail between Americans and people overseas suspected of links to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. Bush has defended the program as a vital tool in a fast-moving battle against elusive enemies, and he has cited the inherent powers of the presidency in circumventing a long-established secret court that issues warrants in intelligence cases.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed separate lawsuits yesterday asserting that Bush exceeded his authority and violated Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures by ordering the National Security Agency's surveillance.
"The current surveillance of Americans is a chilling assertion of presidential power that has not been seen since the days of Richard Nixon," said Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU's executive director.
The ACLU suit named eight other individuals and groups as fellow plaintiffs, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Greenpeace; the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; writers James Bamford, Christopher Hitchens and Tara McKelvey; and scholars Larry Diamond of Stanford University's Hoover Institution and Barnett R. Rubin of New York University. The ACLU said that because of their work, the plaintiffs "have a well-founded belief that their communications are being intercepted by the NSA" but offered no evidence.
On Monday, Gore accused Bush of "breaking the law repeatedly and insistently," and called for a special investigation. Gore, who lost the presidency to Bush in 2000, was seconded yesterday by Kerry, who lost in 2004. "It is a clear violation of law," Kerry said on CNN.
"Al Gore's hypocrisy knows no bounds," Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan, responded. "If he is going to be the voice of the Democratic Party on national security matters, we welcome it."
McClellan dismissed yesterday's court complaints as "frivolous lawsuits" that "do nothing to help enhance civil liberties or protect the American people."
The press secretary's charge of hypocrisy stems from warrantless searches conducted in the Aldrich Ames spy case during the Clinton-Gore administration and from comments by top Clinton aides asserting presidential prerogative. But Bill Clinton later supported amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to require warrants for foreign intelligence searches as well as wiretaps. Gore yesterday said McClellan's charges "are factually wrong" and that "the Clinton-Gore administration complied fully and completely with the terms of the law."
McClellan also returned fire against Hillary Clinton, who in a speech Monday called the Bush administration "one of the worst" in history. She also asserted that Republicans run the House as though it were a "plantation," in which the opposition has no opportunity to advance contrary views.
McClellan called the comments "way out of line" and suggested that Clinton's presidential ambitions were behind them.
Asked about Gore and Clinton attacking the same day, McClellan said, "We know one tends to like or enjoy grabbing headlines. The other one sounds like that the political season may be starting early."